David Marsden: The remaking of Westerner Park

Red Deer residents have been tested by the COVID-19 pandemic in innumerable ways.

One headache that can’t solely be blamed on the pesky virus, however, is the money that taxpayers have been forced to inject into Westerner Park to keep the entertainment complex afloat.

Yes, COVID-19 required the cancellation of Westerner Days, which should be just around the corner, but the city was forced to take over financial oversight of the facility at the end of January — several weeks before the virus led to widespread layoffs and the temporary closure of many businesses.

So while the pandemic may delay Westerner Park from moving forward in the short term, the illness isn’t to blame for its financial failings.

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The difficulties have been blamed on the unfortunate timing of a major expansion of its exhibition space and a contract to host the Canadian Finals Rodeo that hasn’t been as lucrative as anticipated.

So whose fault is that? Certainly not taxpayers, who dutifully submit their taxes as required, all the while hoping to stay employed or not draw too heavily on their savings.

The city assumed responsibility for Westerner Park within the first month of 2020, but it’s only now, with more than half of the year behind us, that we’re beginning to get a view of the mountain that needs to be scaled.

A $1-million emergency operating grant was made behind closed doors in February. The sum was only disclosed this month, when a further $2 million in support was approved by city council.

Let’s be clear: Westerner Park needs to be remade, and to achieve that, it’s going to take energy and commitment.

“Sometimes, something has to break before you can recreate it, or transform it, and that’s exactly what this is,” noted Janice Wing, Westerner Park’s president and board chair, in January.

“This is a transformational time for Westerner Park. We need to look at being innovative, and we need to look at diversity, and we need to look at doing business differently.”

CEO Mike Olesen says Westerner Park isn’t a business, it’s a non-profit agricultural operation.

The results speak for themselves. It may have been nice for well-meaning community members to sit on the board alongside appointed representatives from the city, Red Deer County and the chamber of commerce, but collectively, they messed up, to use the appropriate accounting term.

Westerner Park should be run like a business. Taxpayers and patrons have created an impressive asset that’s designed to generate excitement and enlightenment, and cover its costs.

It needs to look at its menu of Red Deer Rebels games, Westerner Days, the Agri-Trade Equipment Expo and a handful of trade shows, and up its game.

That’s what smart businesses — ops, sorry, non-profit agricultural groups – do.

Experts say it takes between four and six years to nail down a major convention.

It’s perhaps too much to expect the people in charge at Westerner Park to look that far ahead, but let’s hope they’re looking beyond when they must stop using COVID-19 as an excuse for disappointment.

The city must keep a tight grasp on the reins at Westerner Park, while tasking Olesen with charting a clear path forward.

Only the city can ensure Westerner Park lives up to its potential and that taxpayers aren’t tapped for another unpleasant bailout.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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