An economic engine

What do gospel music, sex shows, hockey, the Olympic torch run, Christmas trees and tractors have in common?

What do gospel music, sex shows, hockey, the Olympic torch run, Christmas trees and tractors have in common?

They all fill vital roles in the vibrant entity that is Westerner Park. The 230-acre site on the southern edge of Red Deer attracts a robust and eclectic array of events through the year, culminating in Westerner Days.

As the annual fair opens today, it’s a good time to reflect on the value and impact of what was once a simple agricultural fair on a 51-acre site surrounding the Arena downtown.

More than 100 years after its inception, and more than a quarter-century after a costly and ambitious move to its current south-side site in 1982, the fair and its facilities have become much more. It is a junior hockey venue; a trade show and convention centre; an entertainment forum; an equestrian ring and agricultural marketplace; a community builder; and a social gathering place.

And, most critically, it is an economic engine.

Last year, Westerner Days drew a record 90,757 people for its five-day run. A recent study shows that about 43 per cent of fair visitors are from outside the Red Deer region, and that they will spend about $5 million in our community this week. An Enigma Research Corp. study suggests that the fair will inject $7.3 million in total into the community this year.

Much of Westerner Park’s success is the result of good planning and forward thinking.

Visitors this week will be greeted by a new administration building at the northeast gates, and will get a glimpse of the ambitious plans for future park development. A new strategic plan calls for Centrium seating capacity to be expanded from 6,000 to 8,000 in nine years and to 10,000 in 19 years; the addition of more display buildings elsewhere; better parking and pedestrian access; further conference and convention facilities; and a proposal for an on-site hotel.

The astute planning and sound economic management is due in great part to a succession of strong leaders on the board of directors. They have shown vision and aggressiveness in equal parts, and have made prudent economic choices.

Westerner Park generates profits year after year, draws from generous community donors like Jack and Joan Donald (who contributed $1.5 million to the project), and adroitly taps provincial and federal public money where possible and necessary (the Centrium was built without putting Red Deer taxpayers on the hook, thanks in great part to the leadership of former mayor Bob McGhee).

The future-forward planning model has served and will continue to serve the community well.

As economic prospects of the Edmonton-Red Deer-Calgary corridor continue to grow, this community will become an even more critical gathering place. Projects like the proposed high-speed rail line will bring even more people to Central Alberta and increase the potential for Westerner Park. (And, perhaps, it makes sense to consider the Westerner Park area for the Red Deer stop of the high-speed train.)

It’s common when economic conditions sour to look for stable enterprises that don’t rely just on the well-being of oilfield and agriculture. Few Central Alberta ventures have been as successful in this pursuit as Westerner Park.

So as you cheer on the pony chuckwagons, wander through the exhibits and enjoy the entertainment at Westerner Days, take a moment to appreciate the planning and effort that has created Westerner Park.

And tip your hat to the little fair that grew into one of the pillars or our community.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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