The future of the Lethbridge and District Exhibition is uncertain after city council decided it will not provide extra funding for the organization, unless the province also chips in.
Exhibition CEO Mike Warkentin presented to council on Nov. 28, asking for either a $6.7 million grant or a $2 million dollar grant, alongside a four-year debt deferral totaling $4.6 million, to be paid at the end of the Exhibition’s loan.
He told councillors even a two-week deferral of making a decision on the funds could have significant impact on the exhibition.
“It would put us in critical situation financially where we would be in a place where we would have to look at a very limited number of options for the future sustainability of our organization,” he said. “My understanding of the situation as it stands today is that that would have the potential to be a significant or critical impact to our organization, any further delay.”
After a lengthy discussion, council decided it would provide $1 million, only if the province commits to contributing $1 million also before Dec. 11. If the province commits the money, the city will also give the Exhibition a debt deferral for two loan payments, totaling $583,000 – which will be paid at the end of the loan in 2052 and 2053.
“The project would never have been built had the province not come in with their almost $28 million so what we are asking from them is to be our partner, to a lesser degree than the amount that has been contributed by the city,” said Councillor Rajko Dodic, who brought the motion forward after hearing the presentation from Warkentin. “The city has had the same problems as the Exhibition has in terms of COVID and cost over runs and things like that, and the province is in a better position to fund a portion of the project than we are.”
The organization was also asking the city to take immediate control of the old pavilions on the site to ease the burden of operating costs. Again dependent on a response from the province, the city would give $500,000 for maintaining the old pavilions.
If the province does not respond or denies the funding, council can comeback with a new motion to support the Exhibition, but as it stands there would be no action without the province.
“The province well knows that the Exhibition has asked for these funds, the Exhibition has talked to them and the province knows that the city would like their participation in it – this isn’t something that will catch them by surprise,” Dodic said.
Contingent on the province providing assistance, the city will also spend up to $300,000 on an independent third party review of the Lethbridge and District Exhibition’s operational planning and financial decision making.
According to Warkentin, the extra costs come from increased interest rates between 2020 and 2022, as well as the cost to keep the old pavilions.
“We are in the infancy of this project – we are in the first six months. Right now we can’t get our feet under us because our operating contingency that we did anticipate sustaining that loss position is eaten up by this capital overage,” Warkentin said in the meeting. He said the funding from council would give the organization the chance to execute its business plan.
Warkentin provided a statement to reporters after the meeting but did not take questions.
“It’s obviously disappointing for us not having certainty today. As we mentioned in there, this conversation has been going on for 18 months ,” he said. “What I can say is it is uplifting to know that there’s optimism and there’s a willingness to find a solution from the City of Lethbridge and a willingness to work together.”
The issue will be on the agenda for the Assets and Infrastructure standing policy committee on Dec. 7, where members of the public will be able to speak on it.