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Cochrane Times

Market to Mayhem: Local Yokel To “Take Back” Cochrane?

The zoning dispute of the century is happening in Cochrane. What’s going on?

Cochranites have been getting fired up and had some hot tea to spill (or throw at) each other over the past week.

The source of all this controversy: A local farmers market? Huh?

Husband and wife duo Todd and Rayanne Simmer opened  “Local Yokel” on Labour Day 2022 to offer a year-round farmers’ market,

It has become a much-loved source of fresh produce, meats, and beautiful artisan wares, all sold by local businesses under one roof.

It was always intended to be a community hub. 

Recently, it closed its doors as a market and has instead been bringing people together for purposes a lot more intense than finding the juiciest tomatoes.

Last Friday, a meeting was held to gather signatures for a petition to “oust” the local Mayor, Jeff Genung, and some council members.

Bit of a vibe switch from a chilled-out local market, no?

Cochranites have had much to say about this, but where did this drama start?

The Back Story… or Stories?

As many local government disputes often do, this all began over a zoning permit.

The property that the Local Yokel sits on was curiously singled out for change in zoning last year.

Last February, the council approved a new Land Use Bylaw (LUB) designating the land the Local Yokels buildings sit on as Business Industrial (BI). The Simmers say it was formerly zoned as “Community Service District.”

zoning map from the Town of Cochrane

Their plot is pictured above, circled in blue.

The Business Industrial zoning allows for a garden centre (where the Simmers were operating their landscaping business, Big Sky Landscaping) but does not allow a farmers’ market.

It’s worth noting that the property’s previous zoning didn’t technically allow for both a garden center and a market on the same site. There’s no zoning in Cochrane bylaws that currently allows that configuration.

photo of Town of Cochrane mayor, Jeff Genung
The mayor of Cochrane, Jeff Genung | Town of Cochrane

The town of Cochrane became aware of the dual business operations. The Simmers claim they called Mayor Jeff Genung to explain their plan for filling the building with products from local farmers/vendors in February 2022.

“Our hope was that the Town may want to get involved in this initiative. He told us that he presented our plan to the Town Council,” Rayanne describes in a lengthy Facebook posting, which gives the couple’s perspective of what they’ve experienced over the last year as business owners.

They operated without a hitch for a few months until just after Christmas.

“December 28, 2022, we received a call from a peace officer, informing us of a complaint that was made against us, that we weren’t zoned properly…We were told that we needed to contact the planning department, which we did so immediately.”

They then recount “weeks” of back-and-forth phone conversations with City Councelors Drew Hyndman and Danika Crosby in apparent attempts to solve the issue. These conversations were unsuccessful.

“We were told that we aren’t zoned properly for our business, that we weren’t allowed to appeal the decision, that they were going to call a peace officer, that they were going to lock our doors and that the fire department has a problem with us.”

“In the coming weeks, we had a surprise AHS inspection (which we passed) and a fire inspection (which we passed).”

“I feel that it’s important to note that during this time, if their calls went to voice mail when trying to contact us, neither Drew nor Danika would leave any messages regarding the nature of their calls and that their tone during these calls when we did speak with them, was hostile,” she said.

This is far from the only account of events from this time period, however: An interview given by Counselor Hyndman says precisely the opposite.

​​“We have not shut him [Todd Simmer] down. We have asked for his cooperation to rectify the situation,” Hyndman told The Cochrane Eagle.

“We have not put a stop order, we haven’t fined him, we’ve done nothing – we have other tools available, but we’re saying, ‘Can you work with us to get this resolved?’”

The difference in recollection is baffling.

The Missing Link, or Letter.

A similar difference in memory extends to the time spanning from 2018-2023 when the zoning changes were being considered.

In an email to the Eagle, Town administration claims they went through extensive measures to try and inform landowners of changes before they were made.

“The land use designation update included extensive engagement to alert the public of proposed zoning changes, which included online mapping, social media posts, public meetings, town-wide mailouts, website updates, surveys on the Let’s Talk Cochrane site, and reaching out to individual landowners in certain cases,” it reads. 

“Numerous attempts to contact the landowner at this site were unsuccessful.”

The Simmers agree on at least one part of this email – no one managed to contact them.

“We are baffled as to any reason there could possibly be why, in 5 years, we haven’t received a single letter, email, text or phone message regarding this change. The Town’s answer to this was that ‘it was in the newspaper. It’s not our fault you don’t read it.’”

Whatever the case, no resolution on the zoning matter was reached, and the Local Yokel officially closed its doors at the end of April.

This brings us back to the beginning of this article, the Local Yokel reopening its doors for meetings of entirely different purposes.

Jumping on The Bandwagon. Or Steering it.

A new player, Craig Chandler, got a hold of the Simmers story in the last few months. 

He seemed to decide it was time to insert himself into the fray under the guise of his Calgary-based “organization,” The Progressive Group for Independent Business (PGIB).

PGIB’s website says it was founded in Burlington Ontario in 1992, lists a Calgary phone number and describes itself as an ‘invite-only” and “Calgary’s largest business and taxpayers organization with over 5,000 supporters.

Craig Chandler is PGIB’s Executive Director. For those who haven’t heard of him, Ol’ Craig has a reputation that far precedes him.

portrait of Craig Chandler
Craig Chandler | X

He’s known for pleasantries such as

  • Apologizing on a Canadian Human Rights Commission settlement after stating that gay people are “sick, diseased or mentally ill” and that “God sees murder as equal to homosexuality” on his radio show.
  • Telling Albertans (directed particularly at immigrants) that “if they don’t vote conservative, they can leave.”
  • And let’s not forget when he left Danielle Smith’s previous leadership campaign after videos were released of him making derogatory jokes about indigenous people at a “private” event.
  • After the incident, he was interviewed, saying, “This is a private function of my close friends. The video was taken by a close friend.”

Apparently, even Chandler’s friends don’t like racists.

However, Chandler seems to have been practicing his “friend” skills with the Simmers.

In a letter he wrote to Mayor Jeff Genung (which included only a few spelling mistakes – gold star for Craig!), he pleads for the Simmers, who he states have “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Portrait of David Parker
David Parker | CBC

(Presumably, for still loving their town?)

He writes, “I have written and rewritten this letter several times.” (We bet you did, Craig!) 

“In fact, this letter is the most heartbreaking letter I have ever written on behalf of a [PGIB] member,” it reads. “The defamation, harassment, and pain this family has endured would make a tear-jerking true series on Netflix.”

Great pitch, but rather than telling Netflix producers, he decided to share what he heard in the meeting at the Local Yokel, which took place on October, Friday the 13th!

In the spirit of the spooky season, everyone was invited to “Come and hear horror stories about Cochrane Town Council,” meet with the notorious David Parker, Executive Director of Take Back Alberta and sign a petition to remove Mayor Jeff Genung. 

A week later, the Mayor is still here, and there have been crickets about the “meeting,” so we might assume not many of Craig’s “friends” showed up.

Regardless, people from out of town coalescing a local problem to try and back up their extreme movement here in Cochrane is pretty freaky, folks.

Cochrane Needs Communication, Not Extremism.

There’s only so much that one can deduce from this convoluted scenario without fully hearing out both sides. 

One thing is sure: It would be better to solve this zoning fiasco in a court of law or at least in a formal meeting of neutral parties.

Cochrane could benefit from more connection between governments and businesses, not outsiders with questionable agendas coming in and trying to create divisions.

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