By Lethbridge Herald on January 26, 2024.
LEAVE IT TO BEEBER
Al Beeber – managing editor
“It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger”
Jeff Carlson on Tuesday had the eye of the tiger. The veteran city councillor showed a spirit and put up a fight that was one for the ages in his assault on the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the City of Lethbridge and the Lethbridge and District Exhibition.
Take a bow, Jeff. Take a well-deserved bow. Because you deserve a standing ovation for your eloquence and your passion on this touchy issue.
If you weren’t watching council’s discussion on the Exhibition situation, you can still check it out on the City’s YouTube page and when you do watch it, you will see Carlson at his finest, making an impassioned argument why council should have put the Exhibition and it’s new Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre out to pasture, a facility we all learned wasn’t even designed to accommodate livestock. Seriously? An agriculture facility that isn’t meant for livestock? That revelation almost mooo-ved me out of my chair in shock.
Carlson told his fellow councillors he couldn’t stomach the thought of asking taxpayers to endure yet a higher tax increase than they will see in November when council will be approving the second of four years of increases contained in the 2023-26 budget that they approved late in the fall of 2022.
Depending on what the initial findings of the third party review shows, taxpayers may indeed be facing a larger tax increase if council votes again to support the Exhibition. Mayor Blaine Hyggen on Tuesday told we two remaining media members in early evening after the vote he would have to say no to a higher increase.
If council in November votes to continue supporting the Exhibition in 2025, an operating grant of up to $6.5 million will have to be provided. If it chooses to abandon the Exhibition, there will still be a mothballing cost of $2.8 million for 2025.
In the meantime, Carlson and fellow councillor Rajko Dodic made abundantly clear why they didn’t feel the City should making any more effort to help what some might call a lame luck try to take wing.
But the majority of council disagreed, and they as well made compelling arguments for trying to see the Exhibition survive and the nearly $80 million hub become viable.
The City has a huge investment in the hub and will be on the hook financially even if it decides to mothball it because there are ongoing expenses.
As a presentation to council by city manager Lloyd Brierley and chief financial officer Darrell Mathews showed, there were pros and cons to either choice council was faced with.
As one member of council told me a couple of weeks ago, council was handed a dung sandwich – “dung” not being the word he used – with a choice of mustard or ketchup for condiments. I think you get the point.
Mayor and council were put in a spot they didn’t want to be in and had to make a tough decision for the community.
And the presentation showed just how tough that had to be, a decision which is going to subject them to scrutiny for the rest of their term.
If you missed the presentation, here are the risks that the City faced if council had declined to approve the MOU:
• Lethbridge permanently loses Exhibition & Ag Society.
• No revenue generation opportunities.
• Exhibition job losses.
• Major events go to other cities.
• Lethbridge residents lose signature community events.
• Impacts to relationship with province.
• Impacts to community reputation with future investors.
• Impacts to relationships with current sponsors.
• Prohibitively expensive to restart.
• Restrictions on selling or re-purposing facility for five years.
• Prime city real estate is unusable.
The only benefits would be that the City will have a good idea of what fixed costs will be and there will be less impact on the budget.
Those were huge considerations for council.
The benefits by approving the MOU are, says the PowerPoint presentation:
• Preserves Exhibition & Ag Society.
• Opportunity to reduce operational costs and increase revenues.
• Potential development opportunities.
• Preserve Exhibition jobs
• Maintain major community events.
• Maintain quality of life for residents.
• Protect City and provincial investments.
• Keep current sponsors support/relationships.
Risks include the amount of operational funding that will be needed and “future decisions on City operating budget pressures.”
In either case, the Hub is going to cost money. And the amount of money that it potentially costs on a daily basis is staggering – I heard the figure of $30,000 brought up during talks. If that is accurate, then that’s $10,950,000 per year.
By approving the MOU, council is giving interim transition leader of the Exhibition Kim Gallucci, who also serves as general manager of the Enmax Centre, a chance to generate revenue for the facility and reduce whatever potential tax burden residents and businesses may be faced with in the future.
One matter that struck me during discussions, along with the livestock matter, was a comment made by Brierley that the building might be bigger than Lethbridge needs. This is a comment we’ve heard often from people who have been in the facility. It is huge, especially that long wide main floor hallway. But to channel Belinda Crowson who late last year brought up how other facilities were initially considered white elephants, will it be too big in 10 or 20 years?
Are criticisms about its size and scope showing shortsightedness?
The answer we won’t know for years and I personally doubt I’ll be above ground long enough to see an answer.
But I’ve heard from people there are problems with the facility, including from exhibitors who had booths at the farmers market when it was moved into the hub, and from one individual involved with a recent event.
On the surface, the hub is looking like a financial train wreck, especially given the revelation that the Exhibition’s business plan which forecast a surplus of $2.3 million – excluding debt and other expenses – for 2023-24 in reality turned out to be a deficit of $6.5 million, a figure which was $7 million before a half million dollars in savings were found in recent weeks. This figure does include debt and other expenses, it should be pointed out.
Can the hub be put back on track and become viable? Can the Exhibition be saved?
Time will tell. None of us knows what to expect except perhaps for one thing:
That Jeff Carlson will once again take centre stage, eloquently and vehemently arguing his viewpoint on behalf of the public who elected him.
Take a bow, Jeff.
Regardless of what people think of your views the Exhibition – and I’m as confused as a cat chasing a laser light on the whole matter – you deserve props for speaking up and speaking out. You did what politicians are elected to do – you fought and you fought hard.
“Rising up straight to the top
Had the guts, got the glory
Went the distance, now I’m not going to stop
Just a man and his will to survive.”
Eye of the Tiger, man. Eye of the Tiger.