The City of Red Deer reached out for some legal advice Monday regarding Westerner Park’s worsening financial situation.
While the legal briefing was held behind closed doors, city council has pledged to make whatever tough decisions that are needed in the days ahead at public meetings.
“While the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, Red Deer city council is also focused on the continuing financial challenges at Westerner Park, which is now amplified by the growing economic impacts of the pandemic,” states a release from the city.
The 2020 Westerner Days fair slated for mid-July was cancelled on April 28, following guidelines set out by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
So far, the province isn’t allowing more than 15-person gatherings.
With no fair or chuckwagon races to attract thousands of central Albertans to Westerner Park this summer, revenue losses for the non-profit society that manages the facility will be exacerbated.
And Westerner Park was already beset by financial problems even before COVID-19 measures cancelled concerts, trades shows, weddings and banquets, hockey games and agricultural events.
The facility usually drives more than $150 million of regional economic activity. But a number of factors led to its financial instability, including the decision to expand, major event contract negotiations and an ongoing Alberta recession.
The city stated many decisions related to Westerner Park’s financial and operational matters, as well as the city’s legal relationship with the convention and exposition centre, must be made in the next two months.
These include short and long-term support for Westerner Park’s operating deficit and debt load, and a review of the city and Westerner Park’s legal relationship.
A city-ordered forensic audit of Westerner Park’s financial books and operating situation is resuming after a temporary pause due to COVID-19. Council will consider its results and make decisions regarding Westerner Park’s cash flow by the end of the month.
City manager Allan Seabrooke said the municipality is working with Westerner Park officials in the meantime “to re-establish viable and sustainable business practices to stabilize the financial situation.”
The city is planning for a time when Westerner Park “can not only reopen, but do so in a financial sustainable way.”
The city was told about Westerner Park’s fiscal challenges in December, and it assumed financial oversight of the fair grounds and convention centre on Jan. 28 — after the first round of layoffs and work reductions.
About 90 per cent of the remaining staff were temporarily laid off due to virus containment measures in March. Sixteen people are still employed at Westerner Park to look after basic site maintenance, financial matters and post-COVID-19 planning.
According to the city, the Westerner Park board of directors still provides overall direction for the fair, concert and trade show facility, with the city’s financial support and decision-making oversight, including approval of the annual budget.