By Lethbridge Herald on December 28, 2023.
LEAVE IT TO BEEBER
The dawn of a new year is upon us as we ring out the old – to use an overtired cliche – this weekend.
But 2023, one of turmoil and conflict, accomplishments and disasters, is ending on somewhat of a high note for city council.
Days before Christmas, with their minds focused on the financial struggles of the Lethbridge & District Exhibition, council took action on a matter which I referred to several weeks ago here as a potentially defining issue of their term.
Hours after the Exhibition and CEO Mike Warkentin parted ways, council threw the Exhibition a financial lifeline and cut ties to its former board, establishing a new management team consisting of two representatives each from the City of Lethbridge and Lethbridge County. This, of course, is conditional upon the Exhibition signing a Memorandum of Understanding by Jan. 19, a date Lethbridge residents need to put on their calendars.
City council clearly heard and listened to residents who for weeks were clamouring for change at what some have derisively called a white elephant overlooking Henderson Lake. Council has also called for an independent third-party review of Exhibition operations which was part of a series of resolutions that died when the province refused to go halves on a $2 million grant to the Exhibition.
These changes reflect what many in Lethbridge wanted and now that white elephant may change colour to green if new leadership can attract the type of business needed to pay the bills. Again these changes are contingent upon that all-important MOU being signed.
What happens if the Exhibition board doesn’t? Time will tell but if it does back away, city residents are going to be livid.
A lot of questions need to be asked about the financial hardships of the Exhibition, which I’m sure everyone wants to see succeed. After all, it’s been a part of our community for a century, bringing numerous events that attract throngs to its grounds. It’s a local institution, nearly as old as the city itself.
Firstly, a couple of questions of the provincial government. Did it have any concerns about the viability of the Exhibition’s business plan when it first gave funding to the Exhibition for the much ballyhooed Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre? If not, why now? Did the business plan change since the funding was announced? Did the government do its due diligence before approving the project?
These deserve answers because without provincial funding in the first place, this “hub” wouldn’t have been built unless the City was willing to come up with the entire $70 million plus price tag.
I’ve inquired about whether the province supports city council’s recent decision and I’m still waiting to hear back.
Next, did anyone – including on the Exhibition board – consider the shortcomings of the city before approving plans for the hub?
The most glaring is an airport which isn’t equipped to handle the size of aircraft needed to carry large numbers of visitors to the Lethbridge. Are companies and organizations coming to the Lethbridge for their events expected to hire buses or rent cars or vans to drive from Calgary here?
And what about hotel rooms? Does the city have enough rooms to accommodate large conferences? I was told recently with the present vacancy rate here there isn’t a need for another hotel but council was told having one on site was important to the Exhibition.
What would that do to the business of existing hotels who already have skin in the hospitality game?
And how about this question: Does anyone outside of Lethbridge actually care that some call this area the so-called premier agri-food corridor in Canada?
Is that enough to attract a diverse range of events here?
Is a company or organization in Toronto or New York or Los Angeles or anywhere actually going to say ‘let’s load up buses and drive 2.5 hours from the Calgary airport to Lethbridge for our convention because it’s the great agri-food corridor of Canada’? If any group does, the 7-Elevens in Claresholm can maybe expect business to boom.
And why, until the Exhibition asked the City for millions of dollars to pay for the demolition of the existing pavilions earlier this year, was it not mentioned – at least at any council meeting I covered – that the Exhibition expected to lose money for as many as four years?
Earlier this year, former CEO Mike Warkentin told the old Economic SPC that the Exhibition expected to lose money this year – not for the next three after. I know because I was there covering that meeting.
I never heard this either at the media tour while the facility was still under construction and it certainly wasn’t mentioned during the grand opening ceremonies days before management decided to let everyone into Whoop-Up Days for no charge even though there were bills to pay, a decision which raised a lot of eyebrows in Lethbridge. No wonder crowds were record highs – of course, people are going to flock to a free event. That’s a no-brainer.
Also needing to be addressed is this as I brought up with the mayor at a recent press event: Why on August 10, 2020 did Warkentin, about one hour and 11 minutes into the council meeting, (you can watch it yourself on YouTube) tell then-mayor Chris Spearman that the demolition of three pavilions was included in the capital cost of the project only to appear before the current council in November to ask that the City take over those pavilions – a request that came months after the Exhibition asked the City for millions of more dollars to cover the cost of demolition?
What prompted that? Is it because of the higher costs of the project – which were said to be just over seven per cent higher than expected? Was the cost of demolition higher than originally anticipated?
What is the reason?
Lastly, what is the actual mandate of the hub? Concerns have been raised in the city about a not-for-profit organization competing with private enterprise for business which is exactly what the hub is doing by hosting weddings and other events at the facility.
It’s taking business from private enterprises who have to pay their own bills including staff salaries. How much business so far has the Exhibition taken from other existing businesses which aren’t funded by taxpayer dollars?
These questions need answers and with public money on the line, the sooner the better for the Lethbridge taxpayer. And all taxpayers in the province.
We’ve heard the word ‘transparency’ bandied about a lot in recent weeks about the Exhibition.
We need and deserve transparency acted upon.
The Exhibition situation is a tough one for everyone because everybody loses unless a way is found to turn what so far looks like a disaster into dollars.