By Lethbridge Herald on January 23, 2024.
Al Beeber – LETHBRIDGE HERALD – email@example.com
The new Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre was not built to accommodate livestock, city council heard Tuesday in a presentation on a Memorandum of Understanding signed Friday by the City of Lethbridge and Lethbridge and District Exhibition.
Council also heard predicted revenue expectations for the hub were optimistic and expense’s pessimistic.
And council was told whether they approved or reject the MOU there will be continued costs to the City.
So after a lengthy discussion in which a common theme was heard from mayor and council that they were in a tough position and had a tough choice to make, council voted by a 7-2 motion to accept the MOU.
Councillors Rajko Dodic and Jeff Carlson, after impassioned presentations on the reasons why they couldn’t support the MOU, chose to vote against it.
Part of the MOU calls for a third party review to be conducted – the cost of which has funding up to $300,000.
The first phase of the review is to be presented in November which will give council and administration an idea of the best avenue to turn down moving forward and a potential opportunity to opt out of future support, which could effectively shut down the Exhibition..
After the vote, mayor Blaine Hyggen said council was in a position it didn’t want to be in and he does not want to raise taxes again come fall.
“We did not want to be in this situation that we’re in. This was not due to council, it was an outside agency that fell upon some hard times and so there’s no easy decision. If we support the MOU, if we don’t support the MOU it was a decision that was important at this time. . . .When we get this review that comes back and if it shows that this is not going to be more sustainable than it is today, we have that opportunity to say ‘no’ at that time and to not move forward. And I would probably be one of those.
“I don’t want to see a tax increase, I can’t support a tax increase for this. We need to find other revenue streams but I also understand that we do need this building,” said the mayor.
“I think it’s important that we have it for many different events that we have there,” added the mayor.
The Exhibition has been part of the city for 126 years and the mayor says what is needed to make it sustainable is something that will be learned in the next months leading up to November when the possibility of an “offramp” will come up.
“It’s not an easy decision,” added Hyggen, saying it was the right decision.
That first phase of the review will provide a lot of different information that council needs to see and that many questions council has could be answered by then.
He said administration has been working for just for a few weeks and has already come up with almost $500,000 in savings.
“As we move forward, we may find ways to make this more sustainable.”
Council’s role as a community leader is to make sure it does due diligence and do everything it can to find out if the building is sustainable “or at least not be a burden on taxation,” added Hyggen.
The mayor said questions that council had weren’t answered previously.
Now with some experts working with the Exhibition in recent weeks, council got the answers to many questions it has asked for more than a year, he said.
Enmax Centre general manager Kim Gallucci has been named interim transition leader for the LDE while Graeme Woods, Manager of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives, has been appointed LDE point of contact for interactions with the City.
City manager Lloyd Brierley told media what council heard was a product of 18 months of discussions with the Exhibition. Things changed toward the end of 2023 at the last meeting which resulted in work that continued through the Christmas season until Tuesday morning when matters were finalized.
“The team was absolutely incredible” in what it accomplished in a short time, he said.
That team identified where the city was in 2020 and where it is now.
Because he has been working on the financials, Brierley said he had an inclination “there was something building toward that” in reference to the deficit that Exhibition is facing this year.
“It is a surprising number, it’s significant. It’s very unfortunate,” Brierley said.
Brierley, who comes from a farming background, said he was surprised the hub wasn’t built to accommodate livestock.
“Those were facts that as an agri-food hub and the community and the importance of that to the community, those are unfortunate situations and findings. Now we’ll look at that and say ‘OK what does exist and what might be able to be done to accommodate some of those’” important things, he said.
During a presentation by Brierley and Chief Financial Officer Darrell Mathews, council heard that rejecting the MOU would almost certainly permanently kill the organization,.
From an estimated $2.3 million surplus, City administration has determined instead the Exhibition is looking at a $6.5 million operating deficit in 2023-24, a difference of $8.8 million.
The LDE has $3.5 million in cash and reserves meaning operating funding of $3 million is required for 2024. This will come from the emergency support grant of $1.2 million approved on Dec. 18 and a 2024 operating grant of $1.8, making a total of $3 million in 2024 operating deficit funding.
Council was told by Mathews the Exhibition can only continue to exist if a new business model is developed.
He told council there are risks of council either approves or rejects the MOU.
Brierley told council “there is no easy way out,” with both options having costs.
Rejecting the MOU, he pointed out, would still have significant costs to the city.
Approving the MOU, showed a presentation, will maintain major community events and quality of life here and will provide time to triage operational costs and increase revenues. It also provides time to complete that review and protects investments made in the hub by the City, province and other stakeholders.
Approval means there will be a $3 million operating grant and a $2 million capital grant required to operate the hub.
If council had voted against the resolution, there would still have been an ongoing financial impact to the City for a dormant new facility, as well as the loss of major events with economic spinoffs going to other communities.
And that vote would have damaged relationships with the province, sponsors and future community investors.
Declining the MOU would still require $3.4 million in operating funding for 2024. And for 2025-26 there would be $2.8 million in operating funding required.
The presentation to council showed the past focus of the LDE was that it “persistently advocated for capital project funding rather than operating” and there was limited development or discussion on operational planning and requirements of the new facility until late in 2023. A critical concern is that focus needs to be on sustainable operating funds to maintain ongoing operations.
The LDE’s estimated cost to complete the hub as of Nov. 28, 2023 was $77.3 million. But the revised costs and commitment to complete, including the demolition or reinvestment in the old pavilions brings that to $89.4 million. And a new parking lot has an estimated cost of $15.7 million.
The 2020 business plan forecast for 2023-24 estimated revenue of $6 million but that figure for 2023-24 has now been revised to $4.5 million.
Expenses estimated in 2020 for 2023-24 were $3.7 million, a figure which has now risen to $7.7 million.