February 21st, 2024

Agri-Food Hub funding focus of SPC discussion

By Lethbridge Herald on December 7, 2023.

Lethbridge and District Exhibition CEO Mike Warkentin listens intently to presentations at the Assets and Infrastructure SPC Thursday about his organization’s request for additional City funding. Herald photo by Al Beeber

Al Beeber – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – abeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

The request for additional City funding by the Lethbridge and District Exhibition for the new Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre generated both support and questions on Thursday at the initial meeting of the new Assets and Infrastructure Standing Policy Committee of Lethbridge city council.

The funding matter will be addressed Tuesday by council which is awaiting word from the province on whether it will pay half of a capital grant of $2,081,093 to help the Exhibition cover a capital shortfall. 

With executive director Mike Warkentin, board president Mark Sayers and other staff watching, the SPC heard numerous presentations from community members including Cyndi Bester of the Chamber of Commerce.

The SPC, consisting of Deputy Mayor Mark Campbell as well as councillors, Jeff Carlson, Nick Paladino and Ryan Parker, heard from numerous people speaking about the Hub’s financial situation.

Much of the discussions focused on public perception and the need for transparency about the costs of the facility. 

Bester told the SPC she had a lot of concerns about the presentation at last week’s city council meeting.

“What I’m asking for is clarification from all levels of government” on how to make the facility succeed so taxpayers are protected from financial risk.”

She said “we need to see that audit,” Bester noted, referring to a potential third-party review that will be undertaken. Bester added, though, she is in support of the facility.

“We don’t want any more tax period,” said Bester, noting some members of the Chamber board were concerned with some communication that government may step in to take over running the facility” and the added tax burden that would put on city taxpayers.

She said “fiscal responsibility and transparency should be core components of all government decisions, especially when it comes to infrastructure efficiency and enhanced marketing potential. This project is really important to the economy of this city and we are concerned” and there is confusion.

“That’s why we’re asking for transparency and a public report of all the information because we feel that there’s information missing somewhere along the line for all this confusion.”

Bester said Exhibition Park traditionally serves “as a vital economic catalyst driving growth and prosperity for our city and its residents. However, we find ourselves facing a hurdle – a challenge that given the global circumstances of the last three-and-a -half years is not totally unexpected,” she said about Warkentin’s presentation to council last week.

She pointed out cost overruns were kept at “an impressive 7.89 per cent,” lower than the 15 per cent industry standard.

Communication seemed lacking between the Exhibition, city administration and council,  though, she added. 

“Transparency was stressed in this chamber this week yet I find it troubling the community perceives a lack of it,” said Bester. 

She added “government should not directly compete with private sector. We trust that collaboration between government, community and industry is the most effective way to increase economic opportunities,” she said, noting government should engage local stakeholders in meaningful dialogue and consultation on all matters affecting local business.

City businessman Dale Leier said he’d never met a more optimistic bunch in his life than city council and noted there is a high demand for transparency and accountability in the city.

“This has an impact in confidence by the community. How does the community actually know it’s getting good value for the money? That’s a very important detail. Where are the metrics for performance, where is the independent overview that would give the taxpaying public comfort that they’re getting good value for the money? I don’t know,” said Leier.

Erin Crane of Tourism Lethbridge also spoke and said she believes “if we build a community where people want to visit, we build a community where people want to live. If we build a community where people where people want to live, we build a community where to people want to work” and invest and do business.

Crane said the Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre will allow the city to bring in more major events, citing the Tim Hortons Brier at the Enmax Centre, that will continue to grow economic impact. The Brier cost the City $1 million and the return was $16.8 million, she said.

“She pointed out that “this is a long term strategy to attract this business.”

Bridget Mearns of BILD expressed her organization’s support for the facility.

She said public investment in a state of the art trade and convention centre can “yield substantial economic, social, cultural benefits for the community and make it a strategic and worthwhile endeavour.”

She said BILD understands the need for council to be steward of the taxpayers dollars so BILD appreciates a third party review which will go a long way to getting confidence back.

BILD is producing the Home and Leisure show in March at the Hub and Mearns said it’s important for businesses to get exposure to the potential consumers and the commerce at such a show.

“This is an important show, this is an important facility, not just because of what it can do but what it already does.”

Two speakers, Alf Gurr and Layne Whipple, both expressed their concerns about transparency and the costs of the facility. Whipple said he and his wife considered using the Hub to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary but the price of catering  made that not possible. They went to another venue that was a third of the price “and just as nice,” said Whipple.

Whipple, who noted he was an avid Exhibition supporter for years, said he ran a successful business and never got help from any level of government.

Acting mayor John Middleton-Hope, who along with mayor Blaine Hyggen and councillor Jenn Schmidt-Rempel were also present at the meeting, asked if council should be concerned about the cost of the facility.

“We’re talking about a significant amount of money. So should we not be concerned? I think absolutely we should be concerned,” said Middleton-Hope

“How much is enough? That’s a question we need to ask the public as well as our administration. How much money is enough?” asked the councillor, pointing out that $77 million has already been spent on the facility which could cost substantially more.

Hyggen said he and Warkentin were in Edmonton “to shake a few trees” and noted council supports the project and the Exhibition.

“What we’re down to is how do we find those dollars? Are we going through taxation or through possibly a provincial grant?”

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We currently have a $22 million parkade downtown which has no tenants leasing the office space and the parkade operates with minimal use. The mainfloor was over-run by addicts always using the bathrooms to do drugs and bathe, although I applaud the city for reducing that impact, but the building is not being used as expected!
The plan that I remember was the NDP was using green funding to help pay the provincial portion, with the concept people would come from other areas/cities, park in the parkade and use transit to conduct business. That was the concept!
Really? I didn’t believe it would ever fly and today is proof!
We must be very careful where are funds are being spent in today’s financial situation where Canada has doubled it’s national debt in just a few years, so the Agri-Hub needs to be scrutinized.
Whatever happened to building in stages, as funding was available? We spent over $70 million in the downtown core over the last 10-12 years building CASA, renovating Yates, on SAAG, and revitalization to attract people downtown, only to be over-run by addicts and criminals who pushed people away from downtown.
Is this Agri-Hub going to be able to attract people and stand on it’s own, or will it be another bus terminal/parkade fiasco? A downtown money pit?