Sector: Social Economy & Infrastructure
Legacy of care, compassion and community
It’s unlikely that Jerry Forbes, long-time station manager of Edmonton’s 630 CHED, could have predicted the impact he’d have on the city he called home. Or that he would have a building named after him that would serve as home base for a cause close to his heart.
It all started back in 1955, when Forbes asked a question that would start a community movement. After learning that some local children would go without holiday gifts, he wondered if Edmontonians could come together to help families in need. Working with station staff, he founded 630 CHED Santas Anonymous, an annual campaign that sought to provide every child with a gift to open on Christmas morning.
For the first few years, Forbes and a small team of station staff began collecting, wrapping and delivering toys to less-fortunate children. Acting as real-life Kris Kringles, they personally delivered more than 600 toys in the first year alone. But each holiday season, Santas Anonymous grew as more Edmontonians began donating time or toys to the cause.
Over time, Forbes’ legacy would grow well beyond those first 600 families, or even the 25,000 served by Santas Anonymous today. The vision that inspired it all — a community coming together to support those in need — would one day inspire the creation of a unique shared work environment for Edmonton-area non-profit organizations.
In the early 2000s, when Santas Anonymous began looking for a larger, permanent home, the organization dreamed of something greater than just a warehouse or office building. Their vision was for a permanent space for Santas Anonymous that could also serve other aligned human and social services organizations. The project had the potential to revolutionize the way non-profits worked together. By offering low-cost leases and access to shared resources, the facility would be a hub of social innovation.
It would be called the Jerry Forbes Centre for Community Spirit.
“The whole idea behind this building was to create a space that would encourage synergy and greater efficiency in the charitable sector,” says Max Scharfenberger, executive director for the centre. “If we can help volunteers connect with new opportunities, and help organizations find volunteers, then I think we can do some really great work.”
Finding an appropriate location for the centre would take time. The building needed adequate office space, as well as enough warehouse space to manage Santas Anonymous’ Christmas rush. The answer came one day in a 93,000 square-foot fabric warehouse, located not just off of Edmonton’s Yellowhead Trail. The owner was looking to relocate his business and was open to selling the building. There was just one problem: financing the purchase.
“We had support from different orders of government, but it ended up being quite a long and drawn-out negotiation process. In the end, we came up a bit short for the initial purchase price, so we approached SEF,” says Scharfenberger.
With support from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as a loan from SEF, the building was purchased outright in 2016. The goal in doing so was to keep rents low for tenants: the only expenses that would then need to be covered were operating costs, such as property maintenance, utilities, janitorial staff and administration costs.
“We’re not interested in making money off of the groups in this building. We’re interested in bringing people together and seeing what kind of collective impact we can have,” says Scharfenberger. “That’s also why we wanted to remodel and rejig the space to meet the needs of our future tenants. We didn’t want them to bear the costs of renovations; we wanted to provide them with move-in ready space, so they could continue to focus on their work.”
Once the building was purchased, the hub for community collaboration was one step closer to opening. But the facility still required significant renovations, including upgrading lighting and accessibility throughout the building. Support from the federal government would help to cover the costs of these upgrades, but unfortunately required payment up front. For a young organization, still unable to open its doors, this was the equivalent of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. That is, until Scharfenberger reached out to SEF for a second time.
“We ended up with a cash flow problem, plain and simple. We have funding confirmed from the federal government, but because of the order they do things we needed something in the meantime to help us pay our contractors,” says Scharfenberger. “Thankfully, SEF was able to help us out.”
Although Santas Anonymous had called the building home since 2016, most other tenants moved in after the majority of the building’s upgrades were complete in October 2018. And already, the Centre is making waves.
“The majority of our tenants signed on site unseen. They were amazed with the idea of it, it almost seemed too good to be true,” says Scharfenberger. “And we have SEF to thank. Without them, we couldn’t have made this project happen.”
Entrepreneurs, and in particular social entrepreneurs are usually moving pretty fast.