McCauley neighbourhood takes charge of its future with Piazza project
When the Edmonton Community Development Company (Edmonton CDC) embarked on a project in the McCauley neighbourhood, it never imagined teaming up with residents to create an investment co-operative that would buy a strip mall.
But McCauley’s vision to transform a notorious plaza into a family-friendly commercial hub was a perfect — albeit unusual — fit with the organization’s mandate to help inner-city neighbourhoods create jobs, affordable housing, social infrastructure and economic prospects.
“You don’t see too many community development initiatives where a neighbourhood creates a way to actually buy, own and determine the future of a major asset in their neighbourhood,” says Mark Holmgren, executive director of Edmonton CDC. “It’s a whole different way of doing business.”
THE PIAZZA PROJECT
The Edmonton CDC formed in early 2017, on a recommendation from the End Poverty Edmonton road map. Edmonton Community Foundation was a lead catalyst in encouraging the city to create the non-profit and continues to be a partner, providing project funding and support.
The McCauley project focused on The Piazza, a $2.86-million strip mall in Little Italy, the heart of the neighbourhood in Edmonton’s northeast downtown.
Residents had long complained about problems around the mall — gambling, drug trafficking, a high police presence and general social disorder. When the community approached the Edmonton CDC with an idea to buy and transform the plaza, the organization was intrigued.
Collaborating with Edmonton neighbourhoods on community-minded initiatives is right up Edmonton CDC’s alley.
“Part of our mandate is to try to improve situations and conditions for people who [have] low income,” Holmgren says. But there was a problem — the property wasn’t for sale. Residents had been unsuccessful in a previous attempt to buy the 1989 strip mall.
Once Edmonton CDC was on board, it joined forces with Edmonton realtor Ross Lizotte, who started working on convincing the owners to sell.
In the meantime, Edmonton CDC launched conversations with residents and business owners about how they would pay for it.
“As the conversation evolved, it became clear that most people hold the majority of their savings in RRSPs and/or TFSAs,” says Karen Gingras, Edmonton CDC’s director 0f neighbourhood development. “The only legal structure we were aware of … was to create an investment co-op.”
It was a steep learning curve but the McCauley Development Co-operative, an entity that can seek investments including RRSP and TFSA transfers, was created. Through the co-op, community members could build a fund to purchase the property.
After months of negotiating with the owners, an offer was submitted and accepted.
The co-op had just six weeks to raise $1 million but only needed 20 days. With 91 investors plus financial support from other partners, the co-op now owns The Piazza.
A FOCAL POINT
The hope is to create a plaza with a bright, welcoming exterior and a curated selection of retail and family-oriented businesses.
“The vision for 95th Street is to really turn it into … a vibrant, walkable street. And that’s all a part of what we do with the mall so that it becomes a wonderful focal point,” Gingras explains.
She thinks The Piazza could become a destination for all Edmontonians.
“It’s in such a great location.”
Holmgren says the initiative’s success extends beyond buying and transforming a mall.
“Not every neighbourhood will have what it takes to pull this off,” he says. “They won’t know that until they have a better understanding of what this thing is and how it might apply to their neighbours.”
To that end, Holmgren hopes to design a series of workshops that would explain investment co-ops — what they are, how to create one and where the risks lie — to community leagues, business associations
and faith-based organizations.
McCauley is an example of how an investment co-op helped residents take charge of their neighbourhood’s future.
“The kind of social capital that existed to pull this off has only been increased by 91 people coming together and investing their personal money in this project. Think of the level of trust that had to exist
and the leadership that had to exist,” he says. “Capacity-building is important and produces not just immediate results, but provides the means by which they really can do more in the future.”