WESTLOCK - The impact Albert and Florence Miller had on the Westlock area for more than a generation is undeniable.
And now the community spirit the couple embraced in life will continue on for the decades to come with the establishment of the Westlock Community Foundation — an organization that will be formed with proceeds of the Miller estate, valued as high as $8 million.
Mayor Ralph Leriger got choked up when talking about the bequeathment, saying he was floored when he learned last year that Albert, who passed away March 23, 2020, and Florence, who passed Nov 19, 2019, had donated much of their estate to the Town of Westlock — the couple were married for 49 years.
“I knew for some time that Albert was going to be generous to his community, he was just that kind of guy. But I didn’t realize how generous he was going to be. I get emotional about it, I can’t help it,” said Leriger Sept. 23. “It’s game-changer money. Municipal governments don’t get bequeathments like this, it doesn’t happen. We’re profoundly honoured by this generous gift.”
Leriger said that although the idea of simply using the windfall for one, or a handful of large projects, was tempting as “it could solve a lot of problems”, Miller was clear in his will that the money would be used for “community building” and not to reduce taxes, or lumped into general revenue.
“You could make yourselves look really good with that kind of money, but then it’s gone in two budget cycles. But that’s not Albert and Florence, that’s not who they were, or what they wanted,” Leriger continued. “We realized as a council that the eyes of the community would be on us and we had to do it right. And I’m absolutely honoured by what I think is a real vote of confidence from Albert in our council to do the right thing.
“I feel like we have the right people and the right path to really move forward.”
At their Sept. 27 meeting, their final one before the Oct. 18 municipal election, town councillors were expected to pass a number of resolutions including the formation of the Westlock Foundation taskforce, which already has a set of guidelines to operate by, then approve transferring all funds the town receives from the Miller estate to the foundation.
“In our strategic plan, and I link everything to our strategic plan, one of the goals is that Westlock is recognized for great governance. And I think that this announcement and project really epitomizes that and may be the best example I can ever think of. It will be an example others might follow,” said Leriger.
The taskforce, which will include the mayor, two town councillors and up to 11 public members, will be chaired by Wayne Peyre and has Brian Trueblood, Debbie McCoy, Jim Lawrence, Laura Morie, Sarah Hayward, Clem Fagnan, Randy Wold and Leriger as members. All were hand-picked by council and have agreed to serve.
“They tried to get a wide cross section of the community so again it's not all business people, or people involved in just education, or health. It really covers the gamut of different experiences, both in the county and town, and will give us some insight into what’s best for the community as a whole,” Peyre explained.
“I have no doubt that we can do some really good things with this that will in turn lead to even better things. End of the day we have to make sure we do it right.”
Funds from the estate are expected to start flowing into the foundation before the end of this year, with the final disbursement anticipated in late 2022, or early 2023. In the meantime, the taskforce will work on finer details like who will appoint the members after the original terms are up, how long the terms are and how projects will make it to the foundation for consideration. Ultimately, the contribution from the Millers will be the nest egg and the return on the investment from it is what the foundation will use to fund projects.
“The money will be used to do good for the region, not just the town. Our task is to make sure this community foundation is in a position so it can do what’s best for the community without a bunch of ties back to council and to take the politics out of it,” said Peyre, who was a close friend of the couple and purchased A. Miller Farm Equipment from Albert back in 1993.
“It’s probably going to take 12 months to get this up and running. But again that ties in to when the estate pays out all the funds. It takes a lot of foresight on behalf of councillors and I give them a lot of credit for choosing this path. I don't think there are too many governments that would give this kind of an opportunity to the community at large.”
No stranger to large community projects, Peyre previously chaired the Westlock Spirit Centre Foundation which raised $1.6 million to help pay for the $19.7 million construction of the Rotary Spirit Centre.
“Knowing Albert and Florence, I think that if this community foundation had been established (when they were alive) and was doing things the right way, this is probably where their estate would have ended up,” he said.
Ultimately, both men view the foundation as an “immense” opportunity for the community. In addition to the countless projects it will help fund in the decades to come, both hope the foundation will be a place where others look to donate — it’s one of the reasons they didn’t name the foundation after the couple and used “Westlock” instead. Leriger also noted the federal government has embraced community foundations in recent years and gave out $31 million to groups across the nation in early 2020.
“This is yet another opportunity to bridge the urban, rural divide yet again. Albert and Florence didn’t see any boundaries in the community and we don’t either. This thing has endless possibilities,” said Leriger.
“The opportunities that can come out of this foundation for this region is immense,” added Peyre. “To me if we do our job right, we can be a place for other people to donate similar to what Albert and Florence did.”
Meet the Millers
Albert Miller was born May 1, 1929 and spent his life in the community. As an adult he and his brother Alex farmed in the Hazel Bluff area and started A. Miller Construction in 1957. Even as late as 2019, Albert and Alex still loved being on the land — that fall the brothers harvested their 69th crop together and combined 1,000 acres.
With the help of their uncles in 1965 they purchased the Westlock John Deere dealership, which became known as A. Miller Farm Equipment, then went on to purchase the Barrhead dealership. Albert also owned the local Chrysler dealership until 1981.
Albert was also one of 24 charter members of the Westlock Rotary Club, which formed Jan. 17, 1968. With the motto “Service Above Self,” Rotary was a perfect fit for Albert and Florence, a school teacher by trade, who embraced and supported Rotary throughout the rest of their lives. Albert was club president twice, 1976-77 and 1984-85, and also served as district governor — the couple received numerous Rotary accolades over the decades.
Albert also helped organize what became the Vintage Tractor & Machinery Club and was club president for the first two years. The club also spurred development of the Canadian Tractor Museum, which he donated several pieces to.
In 2005, Albert was honoured with an Alberta Centennial Medal, while in 2015 Lakeland College added his name to Alumni Wall of Distinction.
“Albert Miller was a community builder and over the last number of years we’ve lost a number of them,” said Leriger. “Growing up in Westlock a whole generation were given nothing but opportunity by these men and women. And really that’s what this foundation is meant to do: provide opportunity.”