What is it? When Will it One? And What would it take to make the Free Store more Resilient for the Future?

This program is a joint Folk U/Cortes Currents project funded by the Community Radio Fund of Canada and the Government of Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative

Are you thinking and wondering about the Free Store? If you live on Cortes island, the answer is probably yes. Are you drowning in stuff, or down to two bowls in a household of four people? Every week, there are new theories as to what happened to the Free Store: where it went, what will take to get it back, and also exciting possibilities to use the Free Store model to grow Cortes Island: for keeping resources local, making better use of what the island has and reducing the amount of stuff shipped off Island.

Noba Anderson, our SRD (Strathcona Regional District) elected representative joins us to discuss the history of the Free Store, its organizational (or non organizational structure), and what it would take if Cortes residents wanted to grow the Free Store or expand its operations in the future. Lori-Anne then joins to discuss what the Free Store reopening plan looks like in practice.

The Cortes Island Free Store story

In short, the Cortes Island Free Store story goes like this: the Free Store has become a beloved island resource that is far more than a Share Shed or a junk heap but is our ReUse Centre, Thrift Store, and Boutique all in one. However, the Free Store is an anomaly that is allowed by the SRD but isn’t licensed, regulated, or overseen by any actual organization. Therefore, nothing major can be done to the Free Store to improve or expand or even repair it majorly because doing so would require the building, which sits on Crown land leased to the SRD, to be brought up to code. (Which if anyone has looked hard at the building, would be VERY difficult and probably would cost as much as starting new).

Over time, neighbours have mostly wanted to keep the Free Store small and grassroots: skip the bureaucracy! Yet, over the last few years more and more people have begun to clamour for expanding the Free Store by, perhaps, adding a larger and more robust ReUse Centre aspect.

The problem is that we have no organizational structure for the Free Store and linking to the government to make use of tax support and other financial resources, is complicated (see below) and working with another nonprofit means figure out which one, who takes the lead, and where would the expansion/new building even go?

When COVID hit

When COVID hit in March of 2020, the entire Waste Management Centre was closed down. And then months after it opened back up, long after Hornby and other places with Free Stores, ReUse Centres, or thrift stores opened back up, ours stayed close. Why? Because there was no organizing body to advocate for its reopening and to ensure there was a safety plan.

Lori-Anne, a Free Store volunteer extraordinaire, decided she’d get to the bottom of how to reopen the Free Store and began to call the SRD to figure out how to do this. The SRD sent her the Hornby Island COVID safety plan to model ours after. Lori-Anne submitted this plan, called the volunteers and now the Free Store is in the process of getting its permissions to reopen. Which she expects will be in just a few weeks. Reopening does require changes: including limits on how much stuff people can bring (one bag at first) and the days will change to not coincide with the Waste Management Centre (Dump) and thus will be just Monday/Wednesday.

The seed has been planted, however, and many neighbours of Cortes say they are now imagining a more resilient Free Store that could expand to more of a ReUse centre and be less of a burden on the Waste Mangement Centre, with separate parking and less overlapping road/space demands. To get there, however, would require a new kind of organizing effort and so far nobody has stepped up to play that role. Is it you?

What is the Free Store?

Manda: “What is the Free Store? Is it a charity? Is it just a fancy building that they built next to the dump?”

Noba: “It’s a phenomenal little oddity that somehow has flourished with literally no organizational structure, and it’s one of those miracles of grassroots organizing:Just go get her down kind of spirit. It’s beyond me that it works as well as it does. And I really take my hat off to people who have worked so hard for, you know, a generation to keep that place open. But no, it is not a charity. It is not a society. It is not even, blessings to all the volunteers, even a particularly coordinated group of volunteers.
From what I understand the two ladies that do Thursday, if somebody needs to retire, they try to find somebody else to help the other one on Thursday. … It is stunningly organic.”

Organic rather than Bureaucratic

Manda: “There’s an obvious appeal to having a folk-run organization without board meetings, etc.”

Noba: “Yes, and three years ago or so before, in an earlier iteration of this conversation we’re gonna have today about the long term nature of what happened might happen with a Free Store and some needs for building upgrades literally, like the rotting facia, and what do you do with the rodents. So I pulled together a group of volunteers at the time and thinking I was bringing them into a conversation about long term. And I mean, not only did they not want to have that conversation, but they hardly wanted to have a conversation even amongst themselves about how to organize the Free Store better, which they did a little bit. Because they treasured that level of organic-ness, that it was and that they could just show up every Thursday at nine and play with cloth and play with people and keep stuff out of the landfill and, use their passion and not have to get dragged into bureaucracy.”

Dealing with Government

Manda: “I do really appreciate the Folk U. spirit of it: just seeing what needs to be done and doing it. Yet, as COVID has shown us that the less categorizable something is or the more grass-roots, the harder it has been to open back up. The Free Store seems to be an example of this.
The Free Store is grassroots, but still stuck within a bureaucracy that includes SRD, the CVRD, and the Crown.”

“Does the Free Store sit on SRD land?”

Noba: “So in 2000, up until 2008, from from when the Regional District structure was created, I think in the late 60s until 2008, we [Cortes] were governed by the Comox Strathcona Regional District, and the Comox Strathcona Regional District was really forcibly split by the province into two new regional districts. And at that time, the Strathcona Regional District was born. And I was elected just a handful of months after that took effect. And then the Comox Valley Regional District stayed on down in the Comox Valley.”

Most of our governance now is squarely with the Strathcona Regional District. So our parks and our planning and our Grant-in-Aid and our emergency services and stuff is with the SRD. But when that split happened in 2008, the province required that that joint board with all of the directors from the Strathcona and the Comox Valley regions sit together on solid waste, and on hospitals. So those are the two matters that we have a joint board on. So there’s I think 23 different board members that get together every month or two depending on the season to talk about our solid waste. And we have landfills and transfer stations and compost pilot programs across the whole region from Comox to Quadra to Hornby Island. And so it is that Comox Strathcona solid waste service that actually manages our operations here on Cortes Island, and has the crown lease to that piece of land so that piece of land that the recycle centre on is actually crown land with a very long term lease to the solid waste service of the Free Store building.”

The earliest incarnation

Noba: “I got to give my hat off to Dova Wiltshire and Bill Fidel and others back In the day who made that building happen. …I remember when there was this really super ramshackle little building, where the recycling bays are now that had sort of a room that I wouldn’t have really called a Free Store, it was the earliest incarnation of the Free Store where people would just dump the stuff they didn’t want, that they thought somebody else might use, and you’d kind of just go and pour through it. And there were bags and heaps of things. And every once in a while, some volunteers would come and sort it all out and make it a little bit better.”

When Dova Wiltshire was the manager

Noba: “The next iteration of the Free Store happened when Dova was the manager there and she was able to gather up a bunch of people enthusiastic about making that a really beautiful space, and they built the building that we now know and love. But literally, as far as I can tell, with no authority from the Regional District, no permits, no permissions, no approvals by the Regional District Board, no concurrence with staff. I actually don’t know how that happened: you don’t just put up a building overnight. It’s remarkable. So you know, back to that, ‘let’s just get her done’ kind of attitude.”

“And although it was certainly built very well, and there were people involved, who helped design it and, and bring good wood and help build it, it certainly is not built to code. And it wasn’t ever really entirely finished, as you can see if you go inside and look up.”

“The whole site has liability coverage, but that is literally the extent of its acknowledgement at the Regional District books, it’s not an asset or liability on the books. There’s no history of it. They acknowledge it, it’s there, and that it’s a very important part of the Solid Waste Management stream, and of community culture, but they don’t do anything about it. And the contract that Brian Pfeifle [from the Waste Management Centre aka Dump] has to run the Centre is a contract that he holds with the Regional District. The Free Store and the old share shed aren’t part of that contract at all. So any interface or any time that he [Brian] puts into support of the Free Stores is on his volunteer time, really.”

Cracks in the Free Store foundation

Noba: “How this really came to my attention, was a number of years ago when a few of the volunteers and associated Free Store lovers wanted to either fix up the Free Store a little bit, or add on to make a little bit more space either for just more room inside the Free Store or a room where the volunteers could store seasonal stuff, so that not everything had to be out on the floor.”

“What we [discovered] very quickly was that if you are going to improve or expand the space beyond sort of fixing a facia board, that you would need to bring the whole building up to code. And it probably isn’t worth doing that; it’s probably worth starting again.”

“Which then begs the question, do you rebuild it in that spot? Do you try to find another spot on that site? Or is that the best site on the island overall? So it just opened this whole can of worms that the volunteers at the time … just didn’t have the interest in getting involved with.”

“So, here we are in a situation where the non-organization’s structure that is— that is brilliant, in so many ways—doesn’t have the resilience to respond to the kind of disruption that COVID has presented. And I expect as climate change continues, we’ll see all kinds of other disruptions as social systems begin to fray around the edges. And so it’s really worth our consideration, because it is such a core piece to our fabric socially, stuff wise, economically.”

How can we have some iteration of the Free Store that serves us really well into the long run and that has the resilience to cope with disruptions? As we’ve seen, the Free Store is closed, not because it couldn’t legally be open now, and Lori-Anne, will speak more to that, but because there wasn’t the organizational structure to respond and put together the COVID safety plan and liaise with the Regional District.”

Free Store models

Manda: “Have you been to other islands: do they have Free Stores? Do they look like ours? Do they operate like ours? Are there other models that you run across that get you excited?”

Noba: “I haven’t by any means done an extensive sweep across the province of Free Stores. It’d be great if somebody did, by far the best model I know to look at is on Hornby. My understanding historically is Hornby and Cortes have a very similar kind of history around the Free Store. I went to Hornby a little over a year ago on a number of occasions, really looking into the governance structure of the island as a whole. It’s fascinating what they do. And that interfaces with the Free Store in a really interesting way.”

“But apart from Hornby in the region, I’m not aware of other Free Stores. In urban centers, you’ve got the thrift stores, which are usually charity driven, or sometimes in really small communities like say where the municipality will have kind of a share shed and it’s a completely unmanned, no door, just like a bus stop shelter where people can leave stuff and pick stuff up and the maintenance guy will go by sometimes just throw stuff in the garbage. There are varying reports on whether those are service or pain-in-the-butt to communities. So in terms of really functioning community based, not-for-profit Free Stores, really I only know the Cortes and Hornby models in any depth.”

The Hornby model of local governance 

Noba: “Hornby’s Free Store, like ours started out as this utterly grassroots, completely non-formalized Free Store, but because they have a Residents and Ratepayers Association (HIRRA) that goes back to the 30s or before, which in many ways is the local governance structure on Hornby.”

“The Residents Association hires other Hornby Island residents, they hold all of the contracts with the Regional District for local service delivery.”

“So, for instance, the parks here on Cortes Island, the Friends of Cortes Island manage’s a lot of our parks but not all of them. A couple of them are privately contracted out to individuals who manage the odd Park. Brian manages the Recycling Centre on behalf of the Regional District. The fire department is a separate legal entity, the Firefighting Association, and they have a contract with the Regional District to provide fire services. So there’s all these separate entities that have separate contracts with the regional districts for the delivery of service here.”

“On Hornby, it’s HIRRA that has all of those contracts: the parks, the fire department, the Recycle Center, they’ve got a Privy Council, they’ve got a bunch of outhouses around the island, because in the summer, the population is so much more with tourism.  All of those services are under the umbrella of this 100 year old or more society that meets monthly, has open meetings, has a very, very broad membership in the community, and has literally hundreds of volunteers and all these committees that make all these things happen. So when HIRRA started to develop the relationship with the Regional District around taking over the management of the dump at the time.  Over time, HIRRA became the contractor to look after that whole space: the recycling, the garbage transport off Island, and the little Free Store, and like ours, it was a funky little building that served well enough at the time.”

“They have a tax service that supports that whole recycling and garbage operation that the taxpayers pay into. And similarly, at the Strathcona Regional District, we also have a garbage waste disposal service that residents pay into through their property taxes. And that goes towards the operations of the solid waste service here over in Squirrel Cove right at the Recycle Centre. So Hornby decided that they would increase the tax requisition in that particular service in order to borrow the money to build a really great big, permanent, solid Free Store. They have a large space, their population is about 1000 in the winter, and goes up depending on who you talk to from five to 12,000 in the summer. So they’re much bigger scale and their Free Store is very large. It has hours of operation where when the recycle center is open, just like ours, it’s open, and people can go and shop and there’s volunteers in attendance. But unlike ours, interestingly enough, it’s always open. So you can’t drive into the site all the time, but 24 hours a day, if you walk into the site, the building is open, you can open the door and go in and if you need a pair of pants, or you need something, it’s always there.”

“The Community, through their HIRRA structure decided to formalize their Free Store, pay for it, build it in a really good way and fund it and pay for that over time through the property tax requisition. So that is one model that is, in theory available to us. Although, so often, when I talk to people, they say: ‘Oh, God, we just went through this 10 year nightmare about creating a new tax service, and who wants to take the thing that we all love and turn it into something we fight about?” So I don’t know that that is a good solution in the culture of the island.”

Where do Cortes Island tax-payer dollars go and who oversees what?

Noba: “When the split of the Regional District happened, the Comox Valley deals with the the large solid waste matters., such as the landfills, and the Strathcona Regional District gets all the local Cortez specific services such as fire, planning, parks, whatever it might be. It was determined that curbside pickup was a local service. Whereas the management of the solid waste of the recycling center was a regional service.”

“When I was first elected 12 years ago, actually, it was Strathcona that paid for the transportation of the garbage from Cortes over to Campbell River, and not the combined solid waste service of the combined regional districts. And over time, we realized that really wasn’t fair that that was indeed part of a whole regional service. So now the transportation of the containers of garbage leave the island is paid for by the whole Comox Strathcona area. And we certainly get subsidized as a small community because it costs more than our tax base support so that the bigger towns help fund that garbage collection. On the other hand, from your driveway to the [Waste Centre] is still considered a municipal service. So if we were in a city, it would be the municipality that would contract the private waste haulers to pick up your garbage curbside, and they would fund that through your property taxes to the municipality. So in the absence of a municipality, it’s the SRD that is that municipal equivalent. And so we pay for the curbside pickup [from our property taxes]. And that’s why if I bring my recycling into the center, it gets processed differently than if it gets picked up at curbside and brought into the center because they’re in fact two different legal entities and relationships.”

“I’ve been advocating, soft advocating, for a long time at the combined solid waste board that we consider Free Stores and reuse centres maybe a more politically correct term, because people often think of Free Stores is just that a junk heaps, but reuse centres as being part of what we would fund at a regional level and manage at a regional level, because it’s part of our whole regional solid waste stream. But there hasn’t been buy-in at the board on that. And I haven’t pushed very hard, the board being largely municipal. The vast majority of the board are reps from Comox, CumberlandCourtneyCampbell River, so pretty different perspective that their perspective is that that’s handled by the Salvation Army’s. “

What would it take to create a bigger, better Free Store?

Noba: “There was a report a few years ago that came to the board that spoke about Free Stores, potentially in the cities. And it determined, I think, quite rightly that that would be redundant. But as almost as a footnote in that report, it said, ‘Oh, but the rural centers, actually, it’s real a real value, and maybe we could expand it there.’ And even though I jumped up and down went, yay, there that wasn’t taken up by the board overall. So just in this COVID period, I’ve been in fact digging into ‘Okay, what what would this take?’”

“In order for the combined solid waste board to want to take this on, it’s just political will. As far as I can tell, and speaking with staff, there’s no legal impediment, there’s no financial impediment. There’s, no non-starter, it’s just convincing a board of 23 people who represent a huge diversity of constituencies that it is worth funding and managing a whole bunch of very different rural situations all over the place, which may or may not actually be the best model.”

Alternatives

Noba: “The alternative is that we could do it totally nonprofit and not have anything to do with the government.”

“Or, we could do something like Hornby did… Creating a nonprofit Resident’s Association that behaves sort of like a municipality.”

“I’ve been in touch with the SRD to say, Okay, so our local garbage tax that we essentially just pay to the Comox Valley Regional District to pay for our tipping fees when we take our garbage to the dump in Campbell River, could we, in principal, if there was community will, increase the taxation to that and include Free Stores in our offering to the public? And the answer is unclear.”

“So it seems like the options here are either we convince this to be a regional initiative by the solid waste board, maybe there’s some way of doing it under our existing, you know, 1972 garbage service yet to be determined, and we create a new service, just like we did for the halls. Or we can leave the Regional District out of it entirely and there could be some kind of nonprofit created or under the umbrella of existing nonprofit or some slightly more formal, formalized, non organizational structure that could fundraise quite separately. And I don’t think that’s beyond doable at all, I mean, the history of this island of pulling together and fundraising and making stuff happen and putting barns up and is certainly within our grasp, if we didn’t want to involve local government at all. But it would mean, there wouldn’t be a secure ongoing funding source, which might be fine, then you also wouldn’t need to constantly be negotiating with some large entity.”

Pros and Cons

Noba: “There’s pros and cons, both ways. And in the interim, we have this funky system that mostly works as long as there aren’t disruptions that some people really love and don’t want to muck with at all. So I, you know, I beg a question of you also, as a community organizer, how do we even begin that discussion, when there’s so many different views on organization versus non organization? And there’s nobody even really to take ownership over that conversation? Is it me: maybe by default, is it Lori- Anne: maybe by default, but really, it’s a resource that belongs to all of us. So it’s yours and mine as much as it is my neighbours.”

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