A happy New Year for Westerner Park hangs on how quickly the pandemic will wane, allowing for sporting events, summer fairs, concerts and other special events to he held once again.
Although the vaccine should be available to everyone by next fall, Red Deer city council isn’t gambling on “normal” operations happening anytime soon.
Earlier in December, council approved an additional $1-million for supporting the cash-strapped Westerner Park in the City of Red Deer’s 2021 operational budget.
City manager Allan Seabrooke had suggested adding this amount, in case more municipal support is needed by the arena and exhibition grounds in the New Year.
City council has already granted a previous $3 million towards supporting Westerner Park operations, but that money is expected to run out by next spring.
Coun. Lawrence Lee had argued an additional $1 million won’t be enough, while Coun. Vesna Higham wanted to remove even the proposed $1 million in 2021 for Westerner Park, saying earmarking funding is premature as who knows how much assistance will be needed?
“We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know if they will need $1 million or $2 million and we don’t know the best way to structure it,” added Higham.
She suggested dealing with the need as it arose, but the majority on council approved the $1 million, saying it was good planning to set some money aside, just in case.
Westerner Park’s financing has been a contentious issue since the City of Red Deer, which owns the exhibition park’s land, was first informed a year ago that the non-profit association had over-extended itself — even before the pandemic began.
An independent audit later found planning errors had occurred, including the construction of a new exhibition hall when the provincial economy was settling into a prolonged recession. Potential profits from the Canadian Finals Rodeo had also been overestimated, and “inflated assumptions” made about a hoped-for contract with the Red Deer Soccer Association, which never materialized.
The pandemic compounded these problems by taking away Westerner Park’s revenue-generating power through the cancellation of numerous trade shows, concerts and the summer fair.
But the non-profit association’s new CEO Mike Olesen has been working hard this year to make the operational changes recommended by the Deloitte auditors. These include hiring new financial staff to refining business and accounting functions, and doing a major systems overhaul.
“We need to have better systems to challenge assumptions,” said Olesen — so his priority has been building in processes to examine and analyze the risk levels of proposed decisions.
A chartered professional accountant and new controller were hired, and new software was purchased for better events management. Some aspects of the operation that weren’t working were dropped — such as Westerner Park’s in-house catering service.
“What you learn from holding huge events, like the CFR, is that you can guarantee that nothing goes according to plan,” Olesen has stated. “You need to leave in as much financial flexibility as you can, because there needs to be room to pivot.”
The biggest challenge on Westerner Park’s horizon — and the biggest unknown — continues to be COVID-19.