Citizen Investment Fuels Rural Turn-Around
Declining enrolment. Low property values. “For lease” signs in shop windows. These are such common sights in rural parts, it’s a relief to hear about a place that is beating the macro-trends. When the place is Sangudo, Alberta, it’s more than a relief – it’s astonishing. Sangudo’s 400 citizens didn’t wait for a town council, regional municipality, financial institution, or provincial or federal agency to take the lead. They took it themselves.
First, Sangudo took on the school board when it wanted to close the high school. Since then, they’ve organized bees to build recreational facilities and carry out local beautification.
The next part is where things get really different. In a place where so many folks are nearing retirement, a couple of dozen formed an investment co-operative. They use it to pool investment funds (theirs). Then they design and promote enticing venture opportunities where before there were empty or soon-to-be-empty commercial spaces.
Dan Ohler has been in the thick of Sangudo’s rebound these past three years. He pulls no punches about it. “Is your community another Sangudo? Not a chance,” he says. Every place has its own particular blend of economic sector, location, history, and politics. No place will address its challenges by trying to match Sangudo, step for step.
That said, Ohler perceives four things that are fundamental to Sangudo’s can-do attitude. Four keys, he calls them:
- Common Vision: In the course of facing down a serious threat, residents have developed a clear idea of where they want to go.
- Trusted Leadership: A number of locals habitually do things for the good of the whole community, while not trying to steal the show.
- Economic Strategy: the investment co-op fights to retain Sangudo’s core businesses largely on the strength of local savings.
- Wider agenda: Finally, local leaders are pressing for reforms to provincial policy that will help their co-op and others to do more of the same. While thinking and acting in the here and now, they’re looking to their “greater neighbourhood” - other small towns and what they can achieve together, given some strategic government action.
In Dan's view, these are all different ways of expressing the same thing. He explains it on YouTube.
There’s nothing exotic here. Yet together these factors are helping to put a twist in the tale of rural decline we all know too well.
Photo: Sangudo’s kids enjoying their new playground, courtesy Shelly Starman.
- Capital mobilization bedevils rural revitalization. Rural investment co-ops are one way to take on the issue. Another way is the Community Economic Development Investment Fund (CEDIF), which Nova Scotia has pioneered. Here’s something more sector-specific: Boulder County, Colorado is now home to the for-profit Localization Partners LLC, which has been formed to fund local food and farming enterprises.
- Community bonds are a third option. Saskatchewan's Community Bonds program was active in the 1990s. A fourth is an American innovation, the Community Development Financial Institution, exemplified by Coastal Enterprises Inc. of Maine.
- Business succession is the bugbear of small town Canada, and it’s made all the worse by the terrific rate at which small businesses in general go under within five years of start-up. Recent research by the BC-Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) shows that co-operatives in B.C. and co-operatives in Alberta have a much higher survival rate. Québec's Ministry of Economic Development says the same for that province, too.
- When it comes to reversing local patterns of social and environmental decay, the social economy is one the best allies a municipality can find. Whether its co-ops, nonprofits, or volunteer agencies, they share the municipality’s commitment to place and to make business integral to improving the quality of life of all residents. Read up on the collaboration between the social economy and Québec’s municipalities (p. 48), and the convergence of their interests and actions in towns and cities across Canada.
- Does your town have a “rebound” story? Add a comment about it below - it could become a story in i4, too!
i4 is an ejournal about Inspiring, Innovating, Inciting, and Inventing ways of life and work that permit humanity and the planet to thrive in this century of unprecedented challenges. i4 is a publication of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal.