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Free drop-in recreation for Banff residents under consideration

“Cost is often the primary barrier for many people, no matter what their financial circumstances,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town of Banff’s community services director.
Banff Town Hall 2
Banff Town Hall

BANFF – The Town of Banff is looking to make drop-in recreation programs free for all residents in a bid to help people struggling with the high cost of living in the national park tourist town.

If it gets the final nod of approval in the 2020-22 operating budget in mid-January, it’s believed this universal free access program for adults and youth is potentially the first of its kind in Canada.

Municipal officials say Banff’s community social assessment shows that residents continue to struggle with the day-to-day costs of living in a popular tourism destination, noting the benefits of free access outweigh the estimated $35,000 annual loss in potential revenue.

“Cost is often the primary barrier for many people, no matter what their financial circumstances,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town of Banff’s community services director.

“It is very difficult to find a municipality that would put forward free access for all residents, so Banff would definitely be leading in this area.”

Under the program, which would be launched in fall 2020, residents would pay a $10 annual administration fee for a Banff Resident Recreation Pass. That would provide free access to all drop-in sports and leisure programs operated at the Fenlands, 101 Bear St. and new Banff Elementary School gymnasium.

This includes Zumba, 50-plus fitness, volleyball, pickleball, table tennis, basketball, indoor soccer, yoga, brogan, public skating, shinny, roller-skating, a summer fun zone and all drop-in leisure activity currently available with a membership card.

All non-residents would continue to pay the posted rates. The free activities would not include registered programs, or facility rentals for individuals or specific user groups.

Councillor Corrie DiManno voiced strong support for this program, noting a $10 annual administration fee for the Banff Resident Recreation Pass was reasonable.

She pointed to council’s strategic plan, which speaks to enhancing the quality of life for all members of the community regardless of financial circumstances, as well as implementing affordability measures under the municipality’s control.

“I think this is one of those ones that directly deals with this in a very real way,” she said.

DiManno read quotes from residents included in the community social assessment such as: “There’s enough money to just get by, but not enough money for fun.”; “Middle-class locals trying to stay afloat and still living pay cheque to pay cheque.”; “Constant fear of being homeless.”; “Would like to see more local’s discounts so we’re not working, working and able to enjoy where we live.”

Choking back tears, DiManno said: “This gets me every time.

“We heard that it’s really hard for residents and we heard this is a way to make life better and easier for them.”

Initially opposed to providing universal free drop-in recreation access amid fears of lost revenues, Coun. Brian Standish ended up supporting the idea.

“I think it’s going to be hugely successful,” he said.

Coun. Grant Canning showed cautious support, noting he sees value in this program.

“With that said, I do have some issues around it, but I will support it to go to the final budget and we’ll see where it ends up,” he said.

For Mayor Karen Sorensen, the value to residents of such a program is worth more than the cost.

“Very often I will use that as a filter for making a decision,” she said. “I’ve been convinced that the value of this is much greater than the cost.”

Gerrits said universal policy approaches such as this make a significant difference on participation for many people, noting the slightest rate is often a barrier to participation.

As an example, she pointed to the Canmore Public Library’s recent elimination of its annual library card fee, which saw use at the library triple almost immediately.

“It is anticipated that a noticeable increase in use would be seen across municipal recreation facilities and drop-in programs,” Gerrits said.

Compounding cost of living challenges are the income levels in Banff, where 60 per cent of residents earn less than $40,000 a year, with only nine per cent earning more than $80,000 annually.

Statistics gathered for the social assessment also show that single moms in Banff make approximately $19,000 less than single dads, making it the biggest gender-income disparity in the community.

“If this initiative were implemented in the municipality, it would probably set us apart from many others, thereby probably increasing our likelihood of receiving further programing revenues and grants in the future,” she said.

“The Town of Banff is a leader in many things, the environment is one example, and I think this area is another where we can show immense leadership and send a clear message to our residents that we heard them.”