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Lethbridge Exhibition officially opens Agri-Food Hub & Trade Centre

Posted on August 24, 2023 by admin

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

The doors have opened on the long-awaited and much anticipated Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre.

An official grand opening event was staged earlier this month for an invitation-only audience at the brand new facility overlooking Henderson Lake.

The event featured speeches from various dignitaries and an official ribbon-cutting outdoors.

The wheels for a new facility got into motion more than two decades ago when the board of directors at the time started talking about building a bigger facility in the future.

Many former board members including past presidents were on hand as the new complex was opened.

The Exhibition also unveiled its new brand which includes new logo and colours and a new website at agrifoodhub.ca. And the Blackfoot Confederacy flag was raised after the ribbon cutting ceremony.

The event attracted a who’s who of Lethbridge from politicians to members of the tourism and construction sector who sat through a multitude of speeches and a video presentation on a giant screen behind the podium.

Ground was broken on the facility in March 2021 and now the $76.6 million, 288,000 square foot facility is ready to welcome the public and events. Of that space, 268,000 sq.ft. is multifunctional space.

Part of that space is a huge bright ground floor hallway stretching from north to south with windows overlooking Henderson Lake.

For Lethbridge & District Exhibition CEO Mike Warkentin, the opening was tremendously exciting and a relief.

He said the first feasibility study was done in 2002 when he was still in high school and he talked glowingly of the passion previous board members have for the Exhibition organization.

“The passion that they have for agriculture and rodeo and those activities in southern Alberta, it can’t be matched. The majority of those people here today still participate in our organization” and he hopes they feel the same sense of joy that is felt by he and many others.

He said the construction was over budget due to inflation and other challenges which he said was lower than the provincial average of about 15 per cent average.

The Exhibition took $9.27 million out of the budget and Warkentin said he didn’t think anybody would notice.

“We maintained the absolute functionality of this new facility.”

Warkentin said there were more than 300,000 labour man hours involved in the project to get the Hub to its present point. One hundred per cent of those man hours were Alberta organizations and 67 per cent were Lethbridge businesses, Warkentin said.

“What we’re very proud of is that we built a local product with local people.”

Traditionally, the Exhibition has been a regional organization and the new facility gives the opportunity to focus on provincial, national and international events, he said.

The Hub has 104,000 square feet of trade halls, four meeting rooms that are all about 1,100 sq. ft. and four salon banquet rooms that total just over 13,000 sq. ft. and an outdoor patio area.

RJ Sigurdson, Alberta’s agriculture minister, said after the ceremony that the new hub “is a huge potential for the area to be able to showcase agriculture and agri-food in southern Alberta and for the province as a whole. 

“One of my initiatives as minister of agriculture and irrigation is to expand and diversify our agricultural industry. This fits right in with that wheelhouse and this is going to be a huge showcase globally of southern Alberta and the province of Alberta to showcase what’s happening right now in Alberta as far as irrigation goes and agriculture,” he said.

“When you look at southern Alberta and what’s happening with the modernization of irrigation, with agriculture, agri-food, this is of huge importance to both the province but also showcases a lot of advancements in sustainability…it also showcases a lot of what we have to offer for investment in agri-food and agriculture,” said Sigurdson.

The minister said the province invested $27.8 million into the facility “to push it closer to getting it across the finish line.”

The province predicts the facility will have an impact of $90 million per year.

“That’s an incredible benefit to this area,” he said.

On Aug. 12, an open house for the public was held from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

The facility’s four trade halls have a combined 104,000 square feet of space. Each is 26,000 square feet and each is a fully acoustically insulated space.

There are 900 parking stalls available for visitors in the north and south lots of the property. For accessibility, the centre has a limited number of wheelchairs to take guests to their events and it also has universal and accessible washrooms with. Way-finding signs have braille lettering and higher colour contrasts to assist visually impaired visitors. There is accessible parking in the north lot.

The new building dwarfs Exhibition space which has a total of 114,000 sq. ft.

The facility is designed to feel a part of the adjacent Henderson Lake Park with no fencing between the two. 

One highlight which will be popular for weddings and other events, is a second floor salon overlooking the lake through massive windows. This salon will seat between 300 and 400 people. 

The entire facility upon completion will have a capacity of about 10,000 people.

The kitchen facilities will be able to plate about 1,500 people in one sitting, media were told during a March tour. 

The facility was designed so front of house is separated from back of house for a seamless operation of system.

The technologically advanced state-of-the-art, plug-and-play audio visual system that was paid for by $3.5 million of federal funding through PrairiesCan. 

Federal money went to three areas including the audio visual system, the kitchen upgrade and the active networking within the building.

About 10,000 board feet of wood was recycled from trees on the site and the old Henderson Lake campground. This wood has been recycled for use in the new building in various ways. Numbers from bleachers in the old pavilion have been used in the building.

The facility is funded by the province through the Alberta Recovery Plan, the City of Lethbridge, which maintains ownership of the land and a 30-year secured loan against future operations.

Speeches were given by a cadre of people including Lethbridge MP Rachael Thomas who talked about what a unique and special space the Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre is. She said it was built with a vision for the future but with history in mind.

MLA for Lethbridge East Nathan Neudorf said he’s lived here for nearly 30 years and spent 25 of them in construction, the last seven with Ward Brothers which was the general contractor for the project.

He spoke about the hard work done behind the scenes by construction workers.

One of the first projects he began advocating for after getting elected was this project, he said.

“This building will always have a special place in my heart,” Neudorf said.

Mayor Blaine Hyggen told the audience “it’s truly hard to believe this day has come. This is by far the most eagerly anticipated opening in probably a very long time,” he said.

“Considering the changing political climate both provincially and municipality” as well as rising costs and COVID, Hyggen said it was astounding to be in the Hub nearly three years to the day after approval of the project by council.

Hyggen thanked many people including former mayor Chris Spearman and former councillors Jeff Coffman, Rob Miyashiro and Joe Mauro. All current members of council were on hand except for Rajko Dodic who the mayor said was recovering from surgery.

“To see this facility opened and knowing what it will bring to Lethbridge and the entire southern Alberta region is exciting and inspiring,” added the mayor.

Other speakers included Chamber of Commerce CEO Cyndi Bester, County of Lethbridge Reeve Tory Campbell and Blood Tribe councillor Travis Plaited Hair.

Dan Vandal, minister of PrairiesCan, gave a video presentation on the hub, calling it “a remarkable opportunity for this community” that will allow Lethbridge to compete on the global stage for major projects.

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