Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ex plans present a challenge

New facilities could hurt True North, convention centre

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It looks like the Red River Exhibition Association has cooked up quite a plan.

Operating well below the radar of government and the private sector, the Red River Ex intends to develop 200 acres of unoccupied land just west of the Perimeter Highway and north of the Trans-Canada Highway.

The first stage of the development -- a retail and hotel complex led by Shindico Realty Inc. -- is well-publicized and unlikely to cause much consternation. The second phase, a sprawling $140-million development, is going to spark quite a bit of debate.

It will include three major components:

-- A 5,000-seat arena/event centre that will accommodate everything from agricultural exhibitions to concerts and sporting events.

-- A 300,000-square-foot "Expo Centre" that will host agricultural trade shows, conventions and exhibitions for which large space is needed to display farm equipment or livestock.

-- A "Commodities Campus," a light-industrial park for agricultural organizations and commodity groups.

If all that wasn't impressive enough, consider this stunning fact: Red River Ex CEO Garth Rogerson said the project will be undertaken without any government money. Thanks to urban sprawl, the Ex's 460 undeveloped acres have become some of the most valuable real estate in Winnipeg. The plan is to borrow against that land, eliminating the need for public financing.

Because it won't have to ask government for financial support, the Ex does not need to get approval for its plans other than from the City of Winnipeg, which would have to sign off on rezoning and general planning. A more formal plan is scheduled to go to city council sometime in the fall, Rogerson said.

"We think this is a tremendous opportunity," Rogerson said in an interview. "Developing these lands will help us fulfil our mandate."

The elephant in the room here is the impact the project will have on facilities in Winnipeg -- notably the MTS Centre and the soon-to-be-expanded Winnipeg Convention Centre -- and the Keystone Centre in Brandon.

Rogerson said the Red River Ex event and Expo centres are not designed to compete with facilities in Winnipeg or Brandon. Right now, Rogerson said, there are no facilities in Winnipeg that can host large agricultural events, and the new facilities will help attract events that would never have come to Winnipeg. "Our intention is not to compete with existing facilities. We want to add to what we already have."

That could include luring a new sports team of some sort to the arena. Rogerson said they will look at all options, from professional lacrosse to the Western Hockey League.

All this could spark concern at True North Sports & Entertainment, owner of the MTS Centre and the Winnipeg Jets. True North has an agreement with the city and province that no additional public money will go into a competing facility. In this case, however, the Ex is not asking for public money, so True North can do little to stop its plan. Representatives of True North could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

As for the city, even Rogerson admits it is going to be an uphill battle to convince council of the merits of the Red River Ex's vision. The city is heavily invested in expanding the Winnipeg Convention Centre and is looking for support from both the provincial and federal governments to make it happen. For council, the choice will be fairly simple: reject the Red River Ex plan to protect the Winnipeg Convention Centre, or approve the Ex plan and start collecting new property taxes from the resulting development.

Klaus Lahr, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Convention Centre, said he was completely unaware of the Red River Ex's plans. He said if they have a realistic plan to attract new events, then the new facilities could be a valuable addition to the city's convention and trade-show capacity. However, if the Ex simply jousts for the same events, then it could be a real problem. "The trade show and convention market is a bit more complicated than I think they're making it out to be," he said. "In every city, there is only so much need for space unless you attract new events."

The same trepidation is no doubt being felt at Brandon's Keystone Centre. The province and City of Brandon have poured millions of dollars into the facility over the years, and still it remains largely unprofitable. However, it is home to the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair and a number of other large agricultural conventions and trade shows, the same events the Ex says it wants to attract to its Expo Centre. That could create a real headache for the province, which has supported the Keystone Centre because of its political importance to Manitoba's second-largest city.

By leveraging its valuable lands instead of asking for government handouts, the Ex does not have to get permission from the province for its plan. And even if the city is convinced the new facilities will hurt the convention centre, it may not be able to resist the lure of new property taxes.

Which all means this is going to be one very interesting story to follow.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Brandonites unconcerned about effect on Keystone

BRANDON -- Big plans for development at Red River Exhibition Park in Winnipeg aren't being viewed as a threat to the Keystone Centre, Brandon's convention hub, people there say.

"Isn't it interesting Winnipeg wants to be more like Brandon?" Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Cam Clark said Tuesday.

Clark said he doesn't see the proposed Red River Ex development potentially stealing business from the Keystone, but rather as an enhancement that could allow the province to attract bigger shows it can't host now.

"Iàsee this development as complementary, as it identifies the province as a place to come to. If we can take shows out of Toronto and Calgary and bring them to Manitoba, it's a positive," he said.

The proposed 5,000-seat arena and 300,000 square feet of convention space, added to the Red River Exhibition's existing 62,000 square feet of indoor space, would bring it closer to the 540,000 square feet available at the Keystone Centre.

The Red River Ex plan came as no surprise to Keystone Centre general manager NeilàThomson.

"I think all facilities look at different things and ways to grow their businesses and what they think opportunities are for their market, just like we do," Thomson said. "Because we serve Brandon and southwestern Manitoba, we think there is a good market for us here. We don't see any issue with what they are looking for."

But Brandon city manager Scott Hildebrand questioned whether a second facility for large agricultural shows makes sense for Manitoba.

"Everyone that I've talked to in my short time in Brandon says that Brandon is the agricultural hub of Manitoba, and they are doing a good job (hosting agriculture shows),"àHildebrand said.

 

-- Keith Borkowsky, Brandon Sun

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2012 A3

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