By COLLIN GALLANT on October 5, 2023.
The Medicine Hat Stampede needs a $35-million expansion and upgrade to its grandstand to make it safe and keep pace with other fairs in southern Alberta, officials told city council Tuesday.
It would also keep the Hat on the radar as the Highway 3 agri-food corridor is developed, but would require the City of Medicine Hat to provide $14 million for the project in a proposed co-funding model with the province, as well as provide a $7-million loan.
That’s “a lot of money” according to city council members who discussed the presentation with Stampede officials for 90 minutes and asked questions about the business case, the group’s financing, fundraising and operations.
“The Stampede is one of the largest economic drivers in our community,” said Shirley McClennan, a former provincial cabinet minister who sits on the building committee.
“Investing in a multi-functional space that can accommodate large groups of people will grow the number of events held in Medicine Hat.”
It’s timely with the twinning of Highway 3, and the similar (construction) at Lethbridge Exhibition.
“We have an opportunity today to position Medicine Hat as a key player in the agricultural corridor, while creating new benefits by investing in rental space.”
Council can expect a briefing note from administrators in early November.
“All of us have an interest in making this a success,” said Mayor Linnsie Clark. “We want to find something that works … but it is a lot of money in a very difficult time, so it’s not an easy decision.”
First proposed in 2021, the changes would revamp or replace most of the grandstands and add 9,000 square feet of hosting space and a new commercial kitchen.
Lethbridge added 200,000 square feet of trade show and convention space this year when it opened the “AgriFood Hub ad Trade Centre” at Whoop-Up Days in August.
That $76-million facility was paid for with a 40-40-20 split between the province, City of Lethbridge and a loan to the ag society.
Local officials say they’ve secured the same sort of funding promise from the province.
Stampede general manager Ron Edwards told council that the group’s capital reserves were hit during COVID and the recent roof work on the Cypress Pavilion. The group has never had a loan before.
Coun. Darren Hirsch said the cumulative bills, including cost of lost income on money otherwise invested, add up, along with electrical upgrades and other servicing costs.
“It becomes quite a total,” he said. “Passion goes both ways, and I’m passionate to make sure this council makes investments with taxpayer dollars in a prudent way … and I don’t want to saddle the Stampede with a loan that’s untenable.”
“I appreciate that,” said Edwards. “But we bring in $15 million a year (in economic activity) and that’s all from volunteers.”
Coun. Shila Sharps also said the estimate hasn’t changed since the city asked the board to pare it down two years ago, and the city supports the Stampede already with land at $1 per year.
The project should be considered on a regional basis with funds also coming from fundraising and other municipalities, Sharps concluded.
“It’s a regional project.”
“It doesn’t matter where I go, everybody asks what the city’s involvement is going to be,” said Edwards, who said fundraising or money from Cypress County or Redcliff would be used to lessen or pay off the loan.
The funding particulars are advanced with the province, said McClellan.
“It’s standard for the government and they won’t change their mind on it,” said McClellan. “They want to see a local commitment from the city. We believe strongly that this is an asset to the city.”
Coun. Robert Dumanowski said the Stampede is an integral part of the city’s landscape and the request will be considered.
Most councillors wanted more information about the potential gains from the new operations.
Edwards said the local operation would not compete against Lethbridge, or change its goals remarkably.
“I think they (Lethbridge) are going in one direction … looking at international customers, but they’ll have to compete with Calgary,” he said. “We look at Saskatchewan, but we service southeast Alberta.”
The $35-million budget, including $5 million in contingency, would see the north grandstand, built in the mid-1960s, torn down following the 2024 summer rodeo, then replaced over 11 months, and then joined to the south stand with event space that would extend west to join Higdon Hall. Seating would increase from 4,200 to 5,000.
New space with a commercial kitchen and other amenities would create event space for gatherings of about 500 people, augmenting existing space for groups of about 200, and 800 people elsewhere on the grounds.