A family-owned cheesery just south of Vermilion, Alta., will be relocating to a new cheese factory in the heart of the eastern Alberta town, thanks to funding from a group of residents who want to encourage the growth of local businesses.
Old School Cheesery, known for its cheese curds, was selected as the first beneficiary of the Vermilion Community Development Co-operative, a group of about 20 members who each invest at least $5,000.
A few weeks ago, it acquired a plot of land and building on 49th Avenue in Vermilion, just over 175 kilometres east of Edmonton.
"I wasn't ready at all," said Patrick Dupuis, owner of Old School Cheesery. "In my head, it was for 10 years, this project."
One building will be constructed and another renovated. They will act as the new cheese factory and cheese shop.
The new cheese factory will be larger and will be doubled with a shop and a tasting area for customers to try products.
The project will cost about $500,000, the co-operative estimates.
Old School Cheesery will pay rent to the co-op and have the option to buy back the land and buildings after five years.
The co-op is a for-profit organization, but president Scott Webb says its intention is not to make money on the backs of entrepreneurs.
"We will make sure that the rent is reasonable," he said. "Our goal is to have a reasonable return on our investment and to allow [Dupuis'] business to thrive and contribute to our community."
The co-op is a way for residents to make their money grow by investing in their community rather than in the stock markets, he said.
The group receives financial support from Peavey Industries, parent company of the Peavey Mart hardware chain. It has started a pilot project through which they are funding three similar initiatives in Alberta.
The company is prepared to match every dollar spent by the co-op, up to a maximum of $150,000. Though details of this contribution have not been finalized, it could be partly made up of loans. Peavey could also become a member of the co-operative.
Revitalizing downtown Vermilion
Old School Cheesery is currently located on the Dupuis family's farm, just south of Vermilion. The move will bring the company closer to the Trans-Canada Highway, so Dupuis wants to try to build agri-food tourism.
"Before the [COVID-19] pandemic, Patrick drew buses full of visitors to his farm," Webb said. "Having the same number of people visiting our downtown area would be a big plus for Vermilion."
The new cheese factory will also help keep downtown Vermilion alive, especially as economies of small rural communities have suffered in recent years, said construction contractor Tolland Graham.
"You have to pursue every new opportunity, otherwise things can change quickly and a community like ours can get caught up in the cables very quickly," he said.
Vermilion, Graham claims, has the best-preservered downtown in the province outside of large cities. That includes some of the oldest businesses in Alberta, he said.
In recent years, Graham's company has been involved in renovating and modernizing several of the historic buildings on Main Street. According to him, the cheesery will help extend this revitalization to 50th Avenue, just one street over.
On a personal note, Dupuis hopes this expansion will ensure a future for the company that he wishes to bequeath to his daughter in a few years.