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Funding for better Calgary parks in limbo

Calgary’s northeast community of Marlborough Park has been waiting years to upgrade its main neighborhood park. It’s a well-loved space, and at more than 50 years old, is outdated and in need of some revamping.

“We’ve been asking for a long time. We’ve got an older park and it’s just got a few things for the kids,” said Kathy Canu, president of the Marlborough Park Community Association. “I truly believe that it would just improve our community to another level.”

New picnic tables and benches, an updated playground, a new bike lane and maybe even a pickleball court are now nearly within sight as the neighborhood enters into consultation talks with the city.

That’s because Big Marlborough, as the green space is known, is one of five park projects the City of Calgary has confirmed funding for through its Legacy Parks Program into 2025.

But under that scheme, it could be one of the city’s last.

The money in the Legacy Parks Program is set to run out, meaning a dozen other park projects still on the city’s to-do list will have no means of being completed, unless an alternative source of funding is found. 

Coun. Andre Chabot, who represents Ward 10 and is a member of the committee in charge of managing the program, says they’re short almost $130 million to fund all of the projects on the list. 

Since 2003, the program, which creates new parks and updates older ones, has been funded by an annual dividend from Enmax, the city-owned utility. But last year, city council voted to dissolve it, said Chabot. 

“It’s more like just the legacy parks reserve at this point rather than an actual program,” he said.

A map from the latest Legacy Parks Program report:

According to a report presented last week to the city’s infrastructure and planning committee, the program’s current four-year budget (which was $96.4 million at the start of 2023) has already been allocated to five park projects: Big Marlborough, Cornerstone Regional Park, Medicine Hill, Seton Regional Park and Priddis Slough. 

The report notes the five projects are part of the city’s aim to have a “destination park” — parks that have many amenities, are multi-functional and are places where people will spend at least 20 minutes — within five kilometres or a 10-minute drive from all households in Calgary. 

“The projects that are currently in flight will allow administration to meet this target, however, as the city expands and builds out the approved communities, more destination parks will be required,” reads the report. 

Other city targets include providing 10 per cent of open space per community, and two hectares of park space per 1,000 people in most of the city.

Leslie Evans, executive director with the Federation of Calgary Communities, said that while larger destination parks are needed, smaller more ‘local’ green spaces within walking distance of people’s homes are also in demand.

“As we grow as a city, we don’t want to depend on a car.… We want those things to happen naturally in our communities where we can walk.”

Evans added that while there are some have and have-nots in the city when it comes to parks, the location of where they’re needed is somewhat shifting. 

“A northeast community may not have as much green space as a northwest community, but as redevelopment occurs, we find that there’s not enough green space in some of the inner-city communities to accommodate more residents,” she said. 

Without city action, Evans said, communities do step up to the plate to take matters into their own hands. 

“As playgrounds age out … when it becomes dangerous, the city will come in and say we need to take it out and they’ll take it out. But there is no replacement plan.

“So as those infrastructures get older, people mobilize to build.… It might be the community association, it might be a parent group of the local school, or it might be just residents that live near that park that gather together to rebuild the park. And they start fundraising and they start managing, you know, large sums of money to get the park rebuilt.”

Future uncertain

The report presented to the infrastructure and planning committee warned that discontinuing the legacy parks program could result in a “decrease in high-quality, equitable parks and open spaces.”

It says the program has invested $177.5 million in parks, equating to 43 per cent of the total budget for destination parks.

According to Chabot, it was a combination of factors that led council to discontinue the program last year.

“I guess just because there was a significant amount of money that had been going into it because in the last three years Enmax has realized a significantly larger revenue than projected and so that fund had received quite a bit of money.

“And so in order to minimize tax increases into the future … they were hoping to utilize some of those funds.”

The Enmax dividend is now being funnelled into general revenue for the city, said Chabot. 

Going forward, the chair of council’s infrastructure committee, Coun. Sonya Sharp, said funding for the Legacy Parks Program would be discussed at a council meeting later this month.

“At that point, the timeline will be that administration will go away and I believe come back to us in September with an outline of where maybe there could be opportunity for investment and if there’s budget for that,” said Sharp. speaking to reporters on June 12.

Chabot said his ideal scenario would see Enmax dividends restored to the program.

“Hopefully council can see how much of a deficiency that we have and the best way to mitigate that without increasing taxes is look at some of those funding sources that we previously had utilized to help meet our infrastructure deficits.”

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