Struggling agricultural societies seek lifeline

Westerner Park holds annual general meeting Wednesday

Buildings and parking lots sit empty as people stay home.

Westerner Park, which will hold its annual general meeting Wednesday, is one of those facilities.

It’s one of more than 700 agriculture societies across Canada, including 293 in Alberta, asking the federal government for help to survive the pandemic.

Westerner Park’s financial challenges came to light in January, when 90 per cent of its employees (14 full-time staff and 24 part-time and casual staff) were laid off.

Tim Carson, CEO of the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies, said so far, emergency federal sustainability funding has been denied, unlike in Australia, where government has provided significant support.

“The mandate of an agricultural society is to promote agriculture and the quality of life in your community. Both of those things need help right now,” said Carson about the societies that have a long history.

“As an organization, we’ve never really had to tell this story about what’s being lost if we’re not there in a comprehensive way.”

The City of Red Deer approved a $2-million grant for Westerner Park in July. 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 it was financially overextended amid the ongoing uncertainty over when large-scale events can go ahead in the pandemic.

The Canadian Association of Fairs and Exhibitions requested $74 million from the federal government in support of the country’s 743 fairs, exhibitions and agricultural societies.

Association president Amanda Frigon said the request has been discussed in Parliament several times.

“We’re still fighting and asking people to help support and push it through in government. Each fair has been asked to reach out to their ministers and MPs, and help support and be advocates and champions for us,” Frigon said.

Westerner Park CEO Mike Olesen said he is doubtful federal support will arrive, but that won’t stop the facility, one of Alberta’s seven regional agricultural societies, from pushing forward.

Westerner Park will hold its annual general meeting Wednesday.

“The annual meeting is going to be a good chance to address the past, but more importantly say here is where we’ve got ourselves now, where do we want to be?

“There will be a lot of spirited discussion, I’m sure, but it will be a good kickoff for a sustainable future,” Olesen said.

Westerner Park’s agricultural roots are deep and remain strong, with the Westerner Dairy Showcase set for Oct. 22 to 24, and the Agri-Trade Equipment Expo on Nov. 11 to 13.

“(Agri-Trade) will show how exhibitions and trade shows need to evolve. They are still key, and it is still about gathering. The human connection will never go away. Agri-trade will be a good example about how will we create that experience in a really limited environment,” Olesen said.

He said a number of exhibitors are also incorporating interactive technology and the show will pave the way for how trade shows will look in the short-term future, if not longer.

“We’re quite confident we’ll have the ability to show everyone that it can be done safely and still maintain a positive experience for exhibitors and those attending.”

Related:

Westerner Park gets up to $2 million from city

UPDATED: Westerner Park faces financial challenges

Olesen said Alberta’s regional agricultural societies — located in Red Deer, Olds, Grande Prairie, Camrose, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Lloydminster — are all in the events industry, which was one of the first industries affected by COVID and will probably be one of the last to recover.

He said Westerner Park and the Olds Regional Exhibition have discussed some potential shows and ways to leverage each other’s facilities and scale to support one another.

Carson said the bigger the agricultural society, the more infrastructure it has, and the more challenging it has been for them before and during the pandemic.

“Westerner Park and a lot of organizations were somewhat struggling with how to transition and how to evolve. I think that this time frame through the pandemic has really given those groups that chance to have some frank discussions.

“It takes, sometimes, a crisis that will nudge us into saying how do we do this better, how do we improve, how do we ensure we’re meeting the needs of our current community and not our past community?” Carson said.



szielinski@reddeeradvocate.com

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