A business association in Edmonton is testing whether building belonging can be good for both the community and the bottom line with a new micro-grant program that focuses on community resources, transforming existing assets, creating events, and launching pilot projects.
We Belong in Jasper Place is the creation of the Stony Plain Road Business Association and Lindsay Humber Consulting. The two built the concept after speaking with the Jasper Place community. The project has a total pot of $50,000 and is nearly ready to adjudicate grant proposals for up to $5,000 each.
"We feel that community development and economic development are conjoined," the business association's executive director Todd Janes told Taproot. "It can be a really great symbiotic relationship."
Janes has worked to make the project a reality since joining the business association in 2019. With the city winding down its revitalization programs for Jasper Place and Alberta Avenue, he felt there was a need to build a bridge between that and a new initiative for community development.
Janes and the interim executive director for the Alberta Avenue Business Association, along with other stakeholders from Alberta Avenue, all made their case at city hall. "They saw it was time to move on … We both went to city council and said 'We're not sure if you're really done,'" he said.
Jasper Place and Alberta Avenue are both designated as Extended Revitalization Support Neighbourhoods as part of their exit from the conventional revitalization program. For this transition, in 2022 Janes secured $270,000 in city program funding to spend on the future of Jasper Place over two years.
"We begrudgingly became the fiscal agent, because with public money, they wanted some type of established organization to administer and report back on how the money is spent," he said.
The business association hired Humber — a "community engagement consultant with a passion for participatory decision-making and capacity building," according her website — after signing the funding agreement. Humber helped lead community engagement with stakeholders, from residents and business owners to city employees and elected officials, primarily in the first half of 2023.
These discussions led to a focus on "belonging." A post-engagement document lays out that this word means different things to different people, but common themes include beauty, safety, knowing, place-making, and collective contributions.
"If we could look at amplifying belonging … our hypothesis would be that residents would be more engaged, they would care, meaning if we could explore that a bit more, then we were hoping that community capacity or safety, and community well-being and cleanliness, would be enhanced," Janes said.
Proposals for grants are due Nov. 26; the notification deadline is Dec. 12; successful applicants will have to make use of the funds between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2024, according to a page on the project's website. (Janes said the implementation timeline might not be set in stone, though.)
Edmonton has 13 business improvement areas, including Stony Plain Road. Businesses within each of these districts pay fees towards communal improvement in the interest of spurring economic activity. Generally speaking, a business association's primary duty is not to solve social challenges, but to attract dollars and cents. But Janes said that's changing.
"I think there are a number of BIAs in Edmonton — or North America, or throughout the world — that understand the majority of work that BIAs do is either around economic community development or community development with an economic lens, and also around place-building," he said. "I would say there was a pretty strong philosophical shift when I came in as executive director. It was a bit of a change from the previous leadership in the organization."
Janes said his membership hasn't complained about the organization focusing on a "belonging" project. He said the business association has already felt benefit from prior projects that increased dignity for people facing housing insecurity, something top of mind in the area following changes to services offered by Jasper Place Wellness Centre.
"When we said we needed a public washroom that was staffed, we had resistance around that," he said. "Within two months of the public washroom opening, the amount of public urination and public defecation incidents went from around high 20s, 30s a month, down to single digits, to no one reporting any."
And it wasn't just about cleaner streets, but who had a role in making them that way. Janes's association employs a crew of clients from The Mustard Seed, a charity serving people experiencing houselessness and poverty, to clean sidewalk and gutter litter, plus some parks. This has affected the view on who's to blame for any uncleanliness.
"There were some really great illuminations that happened from that," Janes said. "I think some of our business owners thought the majority of garbage came from people who were street-involved. It was really interesting to see the pride that a lot of those workers took with the work they do, and also with the larger community, and how they had interactions, peer to peer, with other people."
Still, Janes said his membership's needs to deal with the consequences of the housing crisis remain front of mind.
"I'm not a bleeding heart," he said. "I don't think any of our businesses, or any individual, really likes having a power discussion where maybe a mini-encampment has come up, and you're asking them, 'I know you don't have a house, but you can't live in my parking lot' … But I feel that it's about meeting people where they're at."
Janes acknowledged that not every project financed by We Belong in Jasper will be popular with everyone. Some might even be a total bust. But he argues there's value in just trying something, and then finding out what people think.
"When you dream of community engagement, some projects that may not work well may incite dialogue or innovation around it," he said. "I think there's a fair bit of that within Edmonton, where people are critical, engaged, and helpful. And really, that's what community's about, right?"
Janes called We Belong in Jasper Place "one small component" of the $270,000 pot dedicated to extending revitalization in the area. He said when the grants are paid out by mid-2024, he'll have spent about half of the full amount.
"Originally, it was for two years' worth of funding. We're hoping to be able to stretch it out further than that," he said, adding that successful recipients of the micro-grants may be eligible for additional funding down the line.
Meanwhile, Alberta Avenue has solidified its own revitalization-extension funding. The city's website details how funds will support five primary goals throughout 2023 and 2024.