July 16th, 2024

New trade centre taking shape during Ag-Expo

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on March 5, 2022.

Herald photo by Al Beeber Lethbridge & District Exhibition CEO Mike Warkentin talks to an audience about the new Agri-food Hub being constructed onsite.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

He stood on a podium in the present and talked about the future. Mike Warkentin, chief executive officer of the Lethbridge & District Exhibition, gave during Ag-Expo’s speaker series insights into the new Agri-Hub and Trade Centre and the role it will play at the Ex.
Warkentin delivered three talks in the Saddle Room of the Exhibition during Ag-Expo which returned to the Exhibition after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The exhibition was founded in 1897 as the Lethbridge & District Agricultural Society when the first fall exposition was organized by community-minded citizens and area ranchers. It was designed to showcase agriculture and promote commerce here.
Over the decades the Exhibition has experienced exponential growth, evolving enormously since those humble beginnings.
And in just over 420 days, the 268,000 square foot Agri-food Hub will open, providing a new home to Ag-Expo and the many other events that have called the four pavilions at the Exhibition home. The new building is expected to contribute more than $90 million annually to the regional economy.
When the building opens, three of the existing Exhibition buildings will be demolished, the lone remaining one which will be Heritage Hall.
This will increase parking onsite from 850 stalls to 2,100, Warkentin told an audience Thursday afternoon.
There are also plans to create an access point to the grounds from W.T. Hill Boulevard to the north which will improve access from Highway 3 and hotels in that area.
The new Hub will put Lethbridge not only on the national stage but the international one, Warkentin said.
The new Hub was designed to face Henderson Lake, giving views of this jewel of south Lethbridge from all floors. The hub will feature a 300-seat high-end gala space overlooking Henderson Lake which Warkentin says will be the piece de resistance of the building.
“It really will create a unique event space that doesn’t exist today in southern Alberta and really allow us to bring industry leaders together in a different way than we do today,” Warkentin said.
The new building is being designed so all space is accessed through back-of-house corridors, Warkentin said, while showing audiences a virtual reality map of it.
Southern Alberta has three major assets which make it appealing as a regional agriculture hub, he said. Those include an abundance of water, sunlight and arable land.
Planning and programming moving forward is focusing on “the distinct agricultural advantage that this part of not only Canada has, but of North America and the world. There are very few growing regions that have the similar conditions to southern Alberta,” Warkentin said.
“Ag-Expo has evolved over the years,” and present facilities, which were built decades ago, lack some of the nicer amenities of a modern trade facility, he said.
He said in the last 18 years, multiple designs have been created and the project has gone to city, federal and provincial governments three times.
“And finally as a result of a changed conversation and a changed outlook, a little bit due to COVID-19 and some stimulus spending, we were provided the opportunity to change the direction of our organization. And so that’s what brought us to the Agri-food Hub and Trade Centre,” he said.
The new facility “really is a change in our business model. It’s an opportunity to put southern Alberta on the map and showcase what already happens here at a provincial, national and international stage,” Warkentin said.
The four connected buildings of the Ex are not ideal for trade space, lacking appropriate amenities to do food service so the Exhibition wanted to address those concerns.
Right now, the Exhibition has 114,000 total square feet on site and usable space is just over 112,000 sq. ft, he said.
The new facility will have three main banquet rooms serviced from a 12,000 sq. ft. kitchen that can serve up to 1,000 meals.
There will also be four meeting rooms on the main floor with lake views.
“Taking advantage of the geographical location next to Henderson Lake was key for us in our planning because it does create a significant and different ambience than really what we have in the glorified quonset buildings we have on site today,” Warkentin added.
“We wanted to create spaces that the community could come together, industry could come together and really focus on some of the natural advantages that we have,” he said of the new hub.
In 1897, Lethbridge was a town with a population of about 2,500, he said. The Ex got really ambitious in about 1912. That year, the community’s then-mayor decided leadership wanted to showcase Lethbridge to the world so development of Henderson Lake and the 78-acre Exhibition site was developed to showcase the World Dry Farming Congress, he said. That event had 7,000 delegates and over 20 countries were represented.

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