A tighter partnership between the City of Red Deer and Westerner Park was advocated by several councillors after hearing the results of a Deloitte sustainability audit.
Given the unexpected bad news city council received late in 2019 about Westerner Park’s finances, “it’s imperative that the city maintain a strong involvement, or in certain respects, an even stronger involvement” with the not-for-profit exhibition association, said Mayor Tara Veer on Monday.
She noted the City of Red Deer will always be “the de facto financial backstop” for Westerner Park because it’s the landowner.
Therefore, the key for a more secure future — in which local taxpayers are not bailing the organization out of a crisis — lies in creating a more effective governance model and reviewing legal agreements between the municipality and Westerner Park, added Veer.
Coun. Tanya Handley was a city council representative on the Westerner Park board of governance and noticed “in the past, there was an us-versus-the-city feeling at the table…
“Those days are done,” Handley added — since both the city and Westerner Park officials have to find positive ways to move forward.
The Deloitte auditors did not recommend that the city take over Westerner Park’s operations, because of the government grant opportunities that are open to non-profits.
But they came up with 35 suggestions to get the cash-strapped fairgrounds back on more solid financial footing. These include getting the City of Red Deer to sharing its staff expertise in capital asset maintenance and in marketing with the not-for-profit agricultural organization.
Westerner Park was found to have inadequate plans for the future upgrades of its buildings and infrastructure. And efforts to market the buildings were also found lacking.
Coun. Frank Wong expressed concern about the City of Red Deer stepping in to fill these knowledge gaps at Westerner Park, saying municipal employees were recently downsized to deal with a COVID-19-impacted economy and less provincial funding.
Wong wondered if helping Westerner Park will mean more city staff will have to be hired.
Veer acknowledged creating capital maintenance plans for Westerner Park could create a “capacity issue” at the city. But she feels there isn’t a choice, since the community needs a solvent Westerner Park to keep generating tourism and economic benefits — and the city doesn’t want to keep propping it up in future.
On the positive side, she said council has already discussed forming a new committee to market the city to event holders. It will be made up of various representatives, including from Westerner Park.
Deloitte auditors suggested loans instead of grants be provided if Westerner Park needs future city assistance, so there’s a hope the money will be repaid.
So far, the city has provided $3 million in grants to the organization, which should keep it going through the first quarter of 2021.
Coun. Lawrence Lee suggested city officials attend the next annual general meeting of Westerner Park to offer assistance in selecting board members who bring a wide array of technical, business and marketing skills.
City councillors generally praised the thoroughness of the audit — as well as the positive attitudes of Westerner Park’s new CEO, Mike Olesen, and board chair Janice Wing, who have started to make changes.
Next, city councillors will sit down with Westerner Park officials to discuss matters of governance and information sharing.
Editor’s note: This article was edited on Nov. 3 to reflect the number of recommendations in the report.