Saturday, May 21, 2011

Founding the River Valley Alliance

Welcome to our first 'official' River Valley Alliance blog. It seemed fitting that our first blog provide a bit of background on the organization. As you can read on our website, "the River Valley Alliance came into existence in 1996 as a group of volunteers representing five Capital Region municipalities. They shared a vision of transforming an 88 km stretch of river valley into a world-class metropolitan river front integrated park."

With no doubt, this group had incredible foresight and passion to tackle such a bold vision; but who was instrumental in forming this alliance, and how did they go about achieving such an ambitious endeavour?

A few phone calls and coffee dates later, I was nudged in the direction of Brian W. L. Tod, a business lawyer and partner for the Edmonton office of Miller Thomson. When I told Brian that some of his colleagues credit him with being the first person to conceive of the idea of a united river valley park system he politely dismissed it.

"You might say I was one of the original advocates," he humbly explained.  In the early 90's, Brian was President of the Fort Edmonton Foundation, the volunteer funding arm of Fort Edmonton Park. During fundraising efforts he was challenged by fellow board member, Frans F. Slatter, to consider promoting Edmonton in broader terms.

"Well, I thought it was a heck of a good idea and started to run with it," Brian said.  While reading an Edmonton Journal poll that had readers rank the river valley as Edmonton's greatest asset, Brian had his ah-ha moment. Edmonton has the potential to further develop and link its river valley park system to as far as the communities of Fort Saskatchewan to Devon.

He quickly went to work developing an executive summary of the concept, which was passed along to friends and colleagues. One of these individuals was Gary Campbell, a local business man, who one day happened to be on the same flight as then City of Edmonton Mayor Bill Smith. He shared the summary with the Mayor who "really got it off the ground."

An ad hoc group of volunteers was formed that eventually included members from the seven municipalities of the Town of Devon, Parkland County, Leduc County, City of Edmonton, Strathcona County, Sturgeon County and the City of Fort Saskatchewan.

Like most grassroots movements, the Alliance had its growing pains, as Ray Rassmussen one of the original co-chairs explained - in a way only a retired university professor could. There was tension among the region's municipalities in the early 90's, fueled by pressures of population growth and a growing divide between urban and rural concerns.

"Those early years were fairly rough going but as momentum continued to grow, attitudes went out the window and people really got behind the concept," Ray recalled.

Ask Ray how the Alliance overcame those challenging initial years and he'll tell you it was the good will of all of the mayors, councillors and volunteers who believed in the potential of the project.

"I had worried that other issues would swamp these meetings but I came away impressed by the leadership of everyone involved. The RVA would not be what it is today without the hard work of people like Judy Duncan and others who worked hard to get buy-in from their communities." 

The theme of cooperation was universal in every conversation I had. I heard the same names over and over again. This never could have happened without ... Gabriele Barry, Maria David Evans, Barry Anderson, Ray Rassmussen, Judy Duncan, Jim Taylor, Sol Rolingher, Jacquie Fenske, Vern Hartwell, Brian Tod, Anne McLellan, Bruce Bentley, Mark Norris, Bill Smith, Bruce Wilson, the list goes on and on, and I am certain we are missing far too many.

Here we are over two decades later and a Capital Region River Valley Park has an ambitious Plan of Action with extraordinary potential. Not only can this generation take pride in this grassroots movement, but so too can the generations that follow.

To everyone involved, past and present, we are incredibly grateful.

Note: If you would like to read some interesting history behind the City of Edmonton's park system read this speech by RVA Advisory Board Chair Graham Hicks.

C. McPhee