For over 100 years, the Village of Strome was a central fixture for people in the region. It was a hub of activity – a place where people came to work, play and raise their families. But over time that began to change, and Strome struggled to maintain its population and economic activity, causing it to become less-and-less viable. Eventually, in January 2016, the Village dissolved into the County and became a hamlet. And I would argue that we are better for it today.
Here’s a short history lesson. Strome’s transition to becoming a hamlet really began in 2005, with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA) President’s Summit on Community Sustainability. This Summit challenged Strome Council’s way of thinking, as we began to re-define what “sustainability” meant to our community.
Increasingly, complicated government rules and regulations pressured Council to be innovative in providing administrative and public works services. As a result, Council contracted the Town of Killam to provide Public Works Services, and later Flagstaff County for Administration. For this innovative approach, the Village of Strome received the 2010 AUMA Municipal Sustainability – Innovative Communities Award.
This indicated that we were on the right track. So we pushed our thinking even further. Not long after, we found more efficiency by centralizing both Public Works and Administration Services to Flagstaff County. This meant our community now had access to a vast array of professionals and capacity we hadn’t had in the past.
Initially there was some negative reaction to these changes. Residents were concerned with losing community identity, reduced office hours and non-resident public works. However, the world did not end! The grass was cut, snow removed and maintenance carried out. In fact, extra grants were received to upgrade infrastructure, and a 10-year sustainability project plan was established and budgeted for. Village beautification projects were initiated. Communication was deemed essential for any change that was proposed, and the Village Newsletter kept residents up-to-date; meetings were held, and numerous individual conversations occurred in an effort to help people understand the situation.
The next stage of looking at sustainability came with the reduced revenue due to the closure of the elevator. The tax burden on residents was increasing each year simply to maintain what we had. The mil rate was heading for the 20 per cent mark!
This pushed Council to request a viability study by the Government of Alberta. The outcome of this study was that 98 per cent of residents voted to dissolve and become a hamlet within Flagstaff County. Council had done its job and was disbanded on January 1, 2016 – 11 years since the initial foray into Community Sustainability, and five years since the AUMA Award.
But residents faced more changes, and we got through them. For example, utility bills increased to reflect the increased infrastructure costs, but the mill rate for property taxes was more than halved, compensating for the increased utility bills – which would have continued to rise regardless.
However, with the transition money provided by the Alberta government, the County set out on an ambitious program of inspecting, maintaining and upgrading infrastructure. Some County residents asked if Strome had won the lottery – but no, these improvements came out of a long process of thinking differently and working toward sustainability.
This is the story: by cooperation with Killam and later Flagstaff County, Strome became sustainable in its administration and public works, maintaining its own identity before moving into a hamlet status as members of Flagstaff County. It took risks to break new ground, but this is only a beginning.
Now we are faced with even bigger challenges as a region and the need for more collaboration. Indeed big changes – perhaps to our governance model – are now essential. My hope is that as a region, we will rise to the challenge and make the sacrifices necessary to prepare for the future, and be an example of what is possible when rural people come together for mutual benefit.