University of Alberta proposes creation of land trust

University developing plan to better leverage land assets over long term.


(Edmonton) As part of its ongoing effort to identify and implement inventive strategies to enhance revenue streams, the University of Alberta is in the midst of developing a plan to better leverage its substantial land holdings.

Blessed with land assets accumulated over the years through the original land grant, land donations and land purchases, university administrators are pursuing the creation of a corporate land trust, a proven strategy of turning institutional land assets into a source of dedicated, permanent funding to support the core mission of the university. This land trust proposal will go before the university’s board of governors at their June meeting.

Don Hickey, vice-president (facilities and operations), says the institution would create the trust and its mandate, but the trust would operate independently of the university with the trust’s board vested with the sole responsibility of working in the best interest of the beneficiary, the U of A.

He explains the main activity of the trust would be to enter into long-term lease agreements with third parties who would develop the land in accordance with the university’s Long Range Development Plan, which outlines the university’s needs 50 years into the future.

“Our current thinking is the future development will align with our existing Long Range Development Plan, and the trust is really an implementation vehicle to achieve what the plan sets out to do,” said Hickey. “If you look at the university’s Long Range Development Plan for South Campus, there are lands there that are designated for development that wouldn’t necessarily have an academic or research function—that’s where the land trust would come in.”

The result would be the creation of a permanent long-term revenue source to aid in the university’s core academic and research activities, and its mission of attracting and retaining the best students, faculty and staff.

“We are facing the reality that funding from traditional sources that have been reduced could stay that way,” said Hickey. “There is a need for us to ensure that we have other revenue streams that we can count on, and this is one way.”

The university’s examination of the idea of a land trust dates back to the 1980s, but the timing was never right. Hickey says all the indicators point to the appropriateness of proceeding now.

“Institutions of this size are not geared to respond with the quickness needed in a real-estate environment,” said Hickey. “Real estate goes in cycles, and if you miss a cycle you may have to wait for when the next one comes around.”

Other institutions across North America, especially those with large land grants, have embraced a land asset management strategy with excellent results. The University of British Columbia land trust has generated millions of dollars for the institution since it was created in the late ‘80s, with similar concepts being adopted by Guelph University and York University in Eastern Canada, and both the University of Calgary and Keyano College in Alberta.

Hickey says designation of what lands would make up the trust is a long ways off. The next step is to seek approval in principle from the university board of governors in June to set up the trust. Creation of the trust mandate and the trust itself would happen towards the end of the year. In the meantime, talks will continue between university administrators, the provincial government, the city of Edmonton and the community to make sure all affected are fully aware that the creation of a land trust is simply an implementation strategy, not a change of direction.

He adds the designation process of portions of the thousands of acres of university lands—900 alone in the Edmonton area—will be careful and inclusive, and cognizant of the sensitivities surrounding various academic and research needs.

“I think people will see the value the land trust can bring to the institution as a whole,” said Hickey. “A land trust offers a relatively safe opportunity for the U of A to diversify its revenue streams while maintaining the institution’s academic integrity.”