Development of an agricultural centre on city-owned land along Cherry Creek Road is generating renewed interest as the City of Port Alberni sets sights on a possible feasibility study.
City councillor Chris Alemany told a group of a dozen citizens Saturday at the 6.9-hectare site behind Pacific Rim Shopping Centre that council is expected to decide in the coming months whether to seek provincial funding for the study.
The recommendation to seek grant funding through the B.C. Rural Dividend program is included in an annual report going to council from the city’s food security and climate disruption committee.
“It will take a couple of months for that just to come to city council,” he cautioned.
The provincial program assists rural communities of 25,000 people or less to reinvigorate and diversify local economies.
Several people at the roadside gathering shared their thoughts on the potential of a centre not only for farm production and marketing but for public education. The idea is hardly new; the property in question has been eyed for similar purposes for years. Proponents believe the centre could be a catalyst for more expanded agriculture throughout the valley.
Bob Brown recently refloated the idea for the centre on Facebook, which sparked a discussion that led to Saturday’s walking tour of the site. He favours an agricultural co-operative approach with a farmers market along Cherry Creek Road.
“Turn it into 2.5-acre plots with family homes,” he suggested. A similar concept has been proposed for the McLean Mill property, where small farms once grew food for local tables, he added.
Heather Shobe pointed out that considerable interest has been shown in the Cherry Creek Road site over the years. A small grower with a background in organic gardening, Shobe serves on an agricultural support team hired by Alberni Clayoquot Regional District to implement its Alberni Valley Agriculture Plan, adopted seven years ago.
The ACRD’s long-term objective is to have 40 percent of the local food supply grown locally within the next 20 years. Pinpointing the Cherry Creek Road site, the strategy focuses on a need for an agricultural centre to raise the profile of local growing and help overcome a lack of public awareness about the valley’s largely unrealized farming potential.
“There have been numerous discussions about community farms and resources,” Shobe said. “This site has been identified and discussed numerous times.”
At its December meeting the committee supported the ACRD’s efforts to pursue funding for the farm development concept.
“We anticipate that the grant would be used to develop more solid plans,” Shobe said. “It’s been talked about over many years.”
Mark Dawson, who last year founded Port Alberni Problem Solvers, a community action group, said they hope to be a part of the agricultural centre initiative once plans gel. He expects a five-year to 10-year development process.
“Sometimes stepping up and doing the right thing for the community is the thing to do,” Dawson said. “We’re willing to network with whatever group it takes to get it done.”
Dawson said opponents of the idea have in the past drowned out proponents.
“This is a great turnout,” he said. “That there’s a dozen people here today makes me extremely delighted.”
A decade ago, an application sought to have the property removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve for development of an RV park. That was denied by the Agricultural Land Commission.
“We saved it from being removed from the ALR in 2008,” said Jen Fisher-Bradley of Women’s Food and Water Initiative, another local advocacy group.
“My vision for this is to use it as a centre of support for other local agriculture,” she added.
Fisher-Bradley, who ran for city mayor in 2011, encouraged the group in its enthusiasm.
“You’re got a lot of good ideas,” she said. “Ignore the trolls. I think we’re onto something here.”
The wooded and undeveloped property is part of the Johnston Road Corridor, which has been identified by the city as a priority for development and beautification.