Ag Expo in Lethbridge could be even bigger — if only there was room.
As the Lethbridge and District Exhibition marks its 118th year, its board finds itself on the threshold of an exciting, but challenging, growth opportunity.
“The last construction at Exhibition Park took place in 1999 with the construction of the Main Pavilion, which connected all the other facilities together,” said general manager Rudy Friesen.
But it quickly outgrew that space.
“Especially for our major events, and for facility rentals as well,” said Friesen. “We don’t have a single day available for January, February and March. We’re at capacity and turning business away.
“It’s frustrating for our organization because we want to see that economic impact take place here.”
Exhibition Park has been planning its expansion phase for a decade now, working with civic and tourism officials and the local chamber of commerce.
“Our city does not have a convention centre, so this joint committee came up with a development plan that would accomplish both of those things,” said Friesen. “It would have increased space for Exhibition Park, plus a facility that was designed to meet the convention needs of the community, all in one building.”
It’s a unique approach, but likely a way of the future, he added.
“By their very nature, agricultural societies in the province have tended to be pretty independent as organizations, and I think that comes from the entrepreneurial nature of the producers that built these societies. But I think it’s a new era, and it speaks to a more collaborative nature in trying to do some things for the good of the community. That’s been a real positive thing for us here in Lethbridge.”
Exhibition Park currently has 120,000 square feet of indoor space and the new plan calls for 250,000 square feet. It would be flexible enough to allow for multiple users at the same time, and includes some high-end meeting space.
“Another key piece of the design for attracting business to the city is a kitchen facility that has the capability to feed 2,000 people in one sitting.”
And since it’s expensive to hold ag events (because of the need to move dirt in and out of the building), a second phase of the development would be the construction of a new Agriplex, with a dedicated dirt floor.
The total cost for both facilities is estimated to be $90 million.
The City of Lethbridge has already come on board, committing $25 million to the development in its 2018 capital plan, contingent on matching funding from other levels of government. The balance would come from the Exhibition association, which struck a fundraising committee earlier this month.
The drop in oil prices, and provincial revenues, makes getting government funds a tough mountain to climb, but Friesen sees it from a different angle.
“When you’re in good economic times, these things cost a lot more to do,” he said. “When you’re in bad economic times, everybody holds their wallet close to the chest. Yet it’s often the most economical time to do it. And it’s a time when the activity would be good for the province.”
There is a sense of urgency, with the clock ticking on the current buildings. Although once considered “the Cadillac of regional exhibitions,” most of its buildings are considered past their useful life, and renovating them isn’t considered a viable option.
Redevelopment would benefit the entire community, said Friesen.
“Economic Development Lethbridge has identified numerous opportunities that just don’t come to this city because we don’t have the facilities,” he said. “What we’re proposing would allow us to be in that game, and be a real regional economic driver.
“I think the key for us is to continue to work diligently with our municipal government to figure out ways to make this happen.”
Friesen points out Ag Expo has had a waiting list of exhibitors for two decades.
“We’re leaving a lot on the table. Ag Expo is a great economic driver for our city, but it could be twice the driver, if we let it.”