County pulls support for Ponoka ag event centre

Ponoka County has withdrawn its financial support for the Calnash Trucking Ag Event Centre.

Ponoka County has withdrawn its financial support for the Calnash Trucking Ag Event Centre.

The decision was made after negations with the Ponoka Ag Event Centre Society (PAECS) to create equitable representation on the board fell through.

The Ponoka Stampede and Exhibition Association and the Ponoka Agricultural Society are represented on the board with three members, the Town of Ponoka and Ponoka County each have one member and there is one member at large.

The town and the county want equal representation on the board and a letter was sent to PAECS in November stating that.

County CAO Charlie Cutforth, a former president of the society, was advised the board did not feel changes were needed.

A second letter was sent from the county at the beginning of January, Cutforth said in an interview. The letter states “if it is the intent of the board to continue to operate in a quasi-private way that the county would no longer subsidize the operation with public money.”

Some equipment such as a skid steer loader, a service truck and some office equipment has been returned to the county and other services such as snow plowing, manure disposal and gravelling services have also been withdrawn.

“Including work-in-kind we’re probably at $3.5 million,” said Cutforth of Ponoka County’s contributions. “We did the site preparation work for it, we built the intersection for the highway and stuff like that.”

PAECS president Terry Jones said every ag event centre in Alberta is run by agricultural societies but they still need government grants to operate and function. He does not feel equal representation is advisable at this time

“I guess there’s two things. The county’s requested to have a five-man equal board and now the town has requested to have a nine-man equal board. I just think down the road it’s a possibility but right now my feeling with PAECS is there’s just too much of the project incomplete.”

“I’m concerned if we get too (many) politicians on the board that don’t understand an ag events centre that there’s just too much work to be done,” Jones added.

Cutforth is proud of the work the board members have to this point. “It’s a terrific project and it’s a terrific facility for the community. We don’t want to lose sight of that.”

Ponoka Coun. Doug Gill said the town supports the county’s decision. “We’re still in favour of equal support per partner…There’s pros and cons for that I understand.”

Gill suggests the stampede association and the agricultural society have more experience in hosting agricultural events but he feels the partners need to be respected. “Being able to make decisions that represent the town’s interests as well as the county.”

The imbalance in votes creates difficulty and can be frustrating for those in the minority.

“Sitting around that table is not really a pleasant thing when even if you have some ideas worth pursuing, they don’t really have to listen to you,” said Gill.

Jones feels everyone’s opinions are heard. If individuals on the board have a suggestion their ideas are considered and he has asked the county and town representatives if there were any issues. “I cannot think of one idea that’s brought back that’s been defeated.”

“Any idea that’s brought up for the betterment of the building, everybody looks at it,” Jones added. “So I can’t think of one thing that the two groups have barrelled through.”

How PAECS members’ votes count

PAECS bylaws were initially set up with nine voting members on the board of directors. The Ponoka Stampede Association and the Ponoka Agricultural Society would have three members each and the Town of Ponoka and Ponoka County would each have one director and a member at large to represent the community.

The two volunteer associations can vote against motions proposed by either the town or the county with the municipalities not having much say.

“We kind of thought that this should work,” explained county Reeve Gordon Svenningsen.

This partnership between the four groups was something the provincial government was eager to see and grants to construct the building were made possible because the groups worked together, he explained.

The county wanted to see the board reduced to five members, one from each partner and a member at large.

“Why can’t we still have a five-member board, hire a manager and then have some ad hoc committees that do fundraising?” asked Svenningsen. “That was our thinking but unfortunately it’s just the town and us (the county) that think that way.”

Ponoka Agricultural Society president Sherry Gummow feels the ag event centre has been positive for Ponoka and is an economic driver for the region.

Gummow said the society contributed a certain amount of cash to the building but declined to state the amount as she feels it is not pertinent to this discussion. She also feels there are different ways to look at a partnership.

“By the very word partnership, it doesn’t necessarily mean equal, it’s part,” stated Gummow.

There are thousands of volunteer hours contributed by both the agricultural society and the stampede association, added Gummow. “I feel the partnership as it currently exists has benefited Ponoka to extreme degrees. We have a new hotel, we have businesses that are open longer hours because of the ag centre being here.”

Stampede association president Joe Dodds sees these trials only as growing pains. “I think this thing can only become bigger and better if we work together.”

Dodds did not want to comment on representation as he supports the stampede association’s decisions but he does not feel money should be an issue in discussions.

“As with any group there’s always ups and downs,” he stated.

How PAECS functions

One of the issues raised by the county questions how the society should function; as an operational or governance board.

“From a governance point of view, we are not prepared to continue to subsidize it with public money unless it is completely open and accountable and the manager has to be given the ability to manage,” Cutforth stated.

The county has not been given any indication that equal representation is something the board considered, he added.

When it comes to how the board functions with its manager, Jones does not think directors are micromanaging operations. “I feel we’re letting the manager run the building.”

The challenges general manager Chas Lambert face include that the building is not complete and the board does not have sufficient policies and procedures in place, Jones stated. “Every time we turn a corner we’re still setting policies because we’re a new organization.”

Those factors would have made Lambert’s job easier however he was hired because PAECS wanted to get the building booked, said Jones.

When Lambert was hired, the advertised job description was to operate the building. “When somebody comes with that understanding they have the expectation that they’re going to be empowered to do that job,” Cutforth explained.

Everyone wants to see a busy ag event centre.

“We don’t want to see any animosity or people choose sides…The reality is that we operate in two different worlds,” explained Cutforth. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

Jones also wants to see the building do well. “My vision of the building all along was local people would be able to use the building during the week,” and special events held during the weekend.