Westerner Park CEO Mike Olesen expressed gratitude for the City of Red Deer’s approval of a $2-million grant — and for council’s endorsement of his plan for a financially feasible future.
“It’s an important decision for our sustainability,” said Olesen on Thursday, “so I credit city council for making a very difficult decision — and for their vote of confidence.”
City manager Allan Seabrooke had recommended providing Westerner Park with up to $2 million to draw on if needed (this amount was approved by council on Wednesday) as a middle-ground remedy, based some events starting up at the fair and exhibition grounds in November.
The grant is in addition to $1 million made available in January.
Cash-strapped Westerner Park had previously asked the city for between $1 million and $3.5 million of relief because its was financially overextended amid the ongoing uncertainty over when large-scale events can go ahead in the pandemic.
Even in the “worst-case scenario,” in which COVID-19 keeps all events out of Westerner Park this year, Olesen believes the $2 million grant can be stretched to sustain the organization until early in 2021.
Westerner Park’s fall calendar is booked with Agri-Trade, the Festival of Trees, the Christmas antique sale, and many other events.
Whether these can be held depends on how well Albertans slow the spread of COVID-19 and whether the government eases restrictions on crowd sizes.
Meanwhile, Westerner Park is planning to reach out to solidify partnerships with Red Deer County and other regional municipalities.
“We want to garner what support we can,” said Olesen, as Westerner Park is an important hub for central Alberta.
But he added, “We don’t want to start by asking for a handout. Our approach will be to connect with (other area municipalities) to discuss our relaunch. We want to see how we can work together.”
Olesen feels the need to counter a public misconception that Westerner Park is a business, when it’s really an agricultural society and non-profit organization.
One of the main aspects of his relaunch plan is to focus on volunteerism and “getting people more involved and excited to help shape our culture.”
This doesn’t just mean providing volunteer opportunities for crowd control at concerts — although that’s part of it, said Olesen.
He also wants area residents to “understand our purpose” and feel able to put their ideas forward, for “we are all about the community.”
Olesen told city council on Wednesday that Westerner Park will become more “front and centre” with its community involvement, with representatives who sit at the table when local groups are presenting bids on bringing large events to Red Deer.
He sees a need to attract more new events, and not just relying on perennial ones.
“We need to be busier … but for them to choose us, we need to be better.”
Olesen’s sustainability plan for Westerner Park’s includes tightening up its business processes, including having more regular financial audits.
He’s also renegotiating the contact with the Canadian Finals Rodeo, so Westerner Park can at least break-even on it, or potentially make a profit.
He told city councillors Wednesday the previous contract had unrealistically over-estimated ticket sales.
Olesen told council he plans to get more corporate sponsorships, including naming rights for buildings. As well, he expects to make good use of the new $18-million exhibition hall that was constructed during a recession and has contributed to Westerner Park’s financial woes.
Apart from the financial aspect, he said the new exhibition hall enhances Westerner Park’s offerings, as it will provide adaptable space for galas, trade shows — or even small or mid-sized concerts.
“If you don’t want seating for 7,000 people in the Centrium, but only 1,500 to 2,000 people, then we will have that flexible space.
“It’s very much our premiere facility on site.”