Alberta town weighs eco village concept

VIKING, Alta. — The hockey playing Sutters may have put Viking on the map, but a local group wants to keep it there.

With small towns getting smaller and farming neighbours getting farther away from each other, a group of residents hopes their idea of an eco village on the edge of Viking will become the new model for rural communities.

Local farmer, market gardener, community activist and youth leader Brian Rozmahel knows communities such as Viking need to find a way to attract people.

“What we’re doing isn’t working. If we don’t try something, our towns will die,” Rozmahel said as he stood in a hay field he hopes will soon be home to 20 families.

What Rozmahel envisions isn’t new. Eco villages have sprouted up across Europe and in parts of the United States and British Columbia.

Eco villages are a group of likeminded families who come together to build a community with sustainable values and goals. The community often has shared facilities, where families can eat together, garden and look out for each other.

“This is a growing trend worldwide,” Rozmahel said. “They want something different. They want to be involved with their community and know their neighbours care.”

If eco villages can be established in New York state and Denmark, why not Viking, Alta., Rozmahel wondered.

“Look and imagine it as your backyard. Why wouldn’t anyone want to live here,” he said, pointing to the 140 acres of native parkland backing onto the 20 acres of hay.

“Imagine having your own national park in your backyard.”

The 160 acres of land, almost two kilometres from Viking, originally belonged to the Rozmahel family, which has farmed in Viking since the 1940s.

When Brian and his wife, Dodi, were first married, they moved a mobile home onto the land and raised their family. They now live on the family farm half way between Viking and the proposed eco village site.

“It was a difficult thing to let go of this land in our family. It was a huge psychological barrier for me. This is where I come to get renewed, but it would give so much more to the community.”

The land title has been switched from the Rozmahel family to the Alberta Rural Sustainable Alternatives Network for three years, during which time they hope to attract families who want to build the eco village.

“This is a large leap.”

It’s also a lot of work. Success will depend on an enthusiastic leader who can inspire families to invest in the concept and patiently wade through the bureaucratic red tape involved in creating an eco village in a rural county that hasn’t created rules for such a place.

Rozmahel estimated it would cost eco villagers $1 million to buy the quarter section of land and build services and roads.

The price tag would be a sale stopper for one resident but shrinks to $50,000 per family when divided between 20 families.

“We want to develop alternatives for those people who want to live differently. This can be a model of sustainable, community living.”

As he stands in the hayfield, Rozmahel envisions fruit orchards, vegetable gardens, children dashing in and out of houses, laundry snapping on clotheslines, retired seniors volunteering at nearby Viking, and Fort McMurray workers relaxing after a hectic week in the northern oilfields.

Viking mayor Marlene Grandinetti said she supports the idea of an eco village, which will bring people and jobs to her community.

“The city isn’t as glamorous as it once was,” said Grandinetti, who grew up outside Calgary but counts herself fortunate that she discovered Viking a few years ago.

With a population of 1,041 residents, Viking can’t take its survival for granted and needs to be the stand-out community, she added.

Vern Hafso, chair of the Rural Outreach and Agricultural Renaissance Society, said Viking had 600 people in its halcyon days when the town boasted a row of grain elevators and farm machinery dealerships. It was the surrounding rural community that held the population.

“The only way to revitalize towns is to repopulate rural communities,” he said.

Grandinetti said Viking is a small town with all the amenities. It boasts five doctors, a new hockey arena, a kindergarten to Grade 12 school, seniors residences, a golf course, swimming pool, veterinary clinic, museum, curling rink, theatre, Legion hall, Edmonton city water, two banks, two grocery stores and a train station with a Via Rail stop.

“Why wouldn’t people come to Viking to live? It’s lovely,” said Jane Ross of Camrose, who participated in the eco village tour.

Alliance Church pastor Darren Anderson said church members also need to ask how they can help build sustainable communities.

“We know we’ve done a terrible job at this. I’m now hearing the question asked on a weekly basis. People are asking how do we have less impact on our planet.”

Diane Hanson of ARSAN said an eco village with members working together is difficult for people to comprehend.

“One hundred years of culture cannot be shifted in two years,” she said.

The concept of the eco village came out of a two-year Rural Community Adaptation project headed by Roz-mahel and Hanson. The pair made energy efficiency house calls and organized workshops to help revitalize small towns and build net zero buildings.

The idea of growing local food for the community also grew out of the project. This spring, Rozmahel expanded his U-pick berry farm with an additional 9,000 strawberry plants, 3,500 trees for an eco buffer and two acres of vegetables.

“When you look at environmental movements, you can have the most impact with food at the centre.”

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