Tara Veer: Westerner Park is too important to fail

  • Feb. 1, 2020 1:30 a.m.

You will have likely heard news this week the City of Red Deer will be assuming financial oversight and decision making over Westerner Park, so I thought I’d offer insight into why, what this may mean for Westerner Park and our community, and next steps.

This is without a doubt a significant development, although not one that emerged overnight, with a perfect storm of critical factors, namely the provincial economy and financially unsustainable decisions at the Westerner, resulting in this necessary measure to ensure business continuity at Westerner Park. While neither the city nor Westerner Park welcome the necessity of the need for the city to assume financial oversight and decision-making, we both fully agree it is necessary course of action and, of the limited options available, the best course of action to return Westerner Park to financial stability.

Our new economic normal is a factor in the equation, as every sector is experiencing the consequences of diminishing “disposable income” in our local, regional, and provincial economies. When businesses and households are forced by necessity to choose need-to-have expenditures over nice-to-have expenditures, it is a consequential reality for Westerner Park that ticket revenues to events overall are down, which will obviously affect ancillary revenues because fewer people attending events will therefore result in fewer people purchasing event related services as well.

The other definitive and catalyzing factor is a more sobering fact; The leadership of Westerner Park has been transparent about the unfortunate fact Westerner Park took on too much in a too short window of time and, in an unforgiving economic climate, this has resulted in unsustainable operations and financial picture for their organization.

For example, the business case to support Westerner Park’s building expansion proved to be overly ambitious and the capital investment unaffordable, establishing an in-house catering service, and the specific contract terms for CFR have had a cumulative financial impact on Westerner Park that have proven to be financially unsustainable.

Acknowledging the financial reality does not, however, mean Westerner Park, the city or our community, accept this as the fated future for an organization that otherwise has demonstrated for more than 125 years of success as an economic engine for our local, regional, provincial and Western Canada economies.

The financial reality of Westerner Park is most certainly a sobering reality, and it is imperative we, (“we” as in Westerner Park, the city and our community) not allow it to continue on a trajectory that would forfeit its future. The question facing Westerner Park, the city and our community is simply this: to intervene, or not intervene? To not intervene would likely mean the cessation of Westerner Park operations. This would immediately translate into the cessation of most of Red Deer’s trade, convention and major events tourism, a fact which would have seismic economic impact to local charities and to small, medium and large businesses in Red Deer and region, not to mention the consequences to community life if we forfeited our most significant community gathering space to an uncertain future at the determination of Westerner Park’s creditors.

The alternative and necessary path forward Westerner Park and the city leadership have agreed to in solidarity is for the city to temporarily intervene in financial oversight and decision-making. We do not, at this stage, yet know how long “temporary” will prove to be.

In response to this unexpected, but necessary intervention, there are no doubt numerous questions which I will endeavour to answer as new information will continue to emerge on a daily basis. The first order of city business will be to engage an independent external auditor in order for the city to gain complete insight into the financial picture of Westerner Park and identify the systemic factors and necessary changes needed to be made at Westerner Park in order to solidify its short-, medium- and long-term sustainability. Once the independent audit is complete, the city will be in a better position to determine the magnitude of impact it may have on the city’s budget and, in turn, our taxpayers. With the information we have, we simply do not have all answers at this time, but will keep the general public updated as we receive new information. Having said this, it is apparent the Westerner will need immediate operating funds for cash flow purposes to keep the doors open. While we will not know terms until council deliberates, I do know we will insist on every term possible to protect our taxpayers’ financial interests.

Operations will continue at the Park, so if you are a ticket holder or looking to purchase tickets to an upcoming charity event, the fair, a concert, a game or have booked a private event etc., you are assured of business continuity.

The intention at this time is to proceed with CFR 47, however, it is imperative a more favourable contract for Westerner Park be negotiated in order for this event to be financially sustainable.

CFR generates a local economic spin-off of $37 million annually, so it is important we not lose sight of this needed economic benefit for our local economy, but it must be hosted with financial terms that are financially practical for Westerner Park.

The Canadian Pro Rodeo Association is aware of this fact, and its intention is to keep the event in Red Deer as well.

In answering questions as I’ve engaged with our community this week and in reading the online public commentary, much of the initial public concern has also been prices at Westerner Park (parking is a commonly cited example) will automatically be going up to compensate for revenue shortfalls. While we do not yet have specific strategies to directly respond to any identified concerns yet, I think it is fair to speculate philosophical and systemic change will need to be pursued, simply raising fees to raise revenue is not the solution.

The Westerner Park president, board and CEO have committed to using this sobering reality as a time of transformation and to redefine Westerner Park. In some ways, this may mean measures that return Westerner Park to its roots that built the legacy we all benefit from today, but in other ways it may mean modernizing, challenging assumptions, and embracing changes that will position Westerner Park for a future that fulfills its potential in a manner they can afford. Ultimately, the intention of the City is to return financial oversight and decision-making back to Westerner Park when it is financially healthy, as the city is looking to reduce local government bureaucracy, not add to the city’s complexity in financial responsibility for an external facility. However, we cannot speculate too far into the future until we have the recommendations of the independent audit.

I hope this helps to answer some of the questions you may have in the short-term. There is no doubt this matter will necessitate further community updates in the future. As always, it is council’s privilege to serve you, and we look forward to seeing you throughout the community.

Mayor Tara Veer

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