By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers
It looks huge from the outside while driving past but to walk the Agri-Food Hub and Trade Centre gives a whole new perspective to the roughly $80 million facility.
Two years to the day a groundbreaking ceremony was staged, Lethbridge Exhibition CEO Mike Warkentin and Blair Grier – project manager of new construction of the Exhibition on the new trade centre – who has overseen the project from the beginning gave city media a tour of the expansive facility.
With a tentative opening scheduled for spring, the Hub is still a work in progress but it’s easy to imagine how impressive this facility will be when the doors finally open to the public.
The facility’s four trade halls have a combined 104,000 square feet of space. Each will be 26,000 square feet and each will be a fully acoustically insulated space, media was told during the tour of both floors.
A milestone was reached earlier this month with the pouring of 1,000 cubic metres of concrete to create the engineered floor system in the trade halls. This flooring utilizes a revolutionary technique which pre-stresses steel fibres allowing the creation of a floor that is only four inches thick, half the thickness of a conventionally reinforced floor. Grier said the Hub is the first public building in Canada with this type of floor.
The Agri-Food Hub itself is a 268,000 square foot facility, dwarfing current Exhibition space which has only a total of 114,000 square feet.
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 when its finished.
The entire facility, when completed, 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.
The facility was designed so front of house is separated from back of house for a seamless operation of system.
The Hubis technologically advanced with a state-of-the-art, plug-and-play audio visual system that was paid for by $3.5 million of federal funding through PrairiesCan.
The federal money went to three areas including the audio visual system, the kitchen upgrade and the active networking within the building, said Warkentin.
He said the facility’s biggest competitive advantage to similar buildings in Canada and the U.S. will be the state-of-the art AV system.
The history of the site dates back to the early 1900s. The city was then about 2,500 people and 6,000 delegates came to a global agricultural event, he said.
Development of the site was done simultaneously with Henderson Lake.
The urban forest at Henderson was also planted on the Exhibition site. To build the Hub, 225 trees had to be removed from the old Henderson campground as well as the Exhibition site.
“It was important from the get-go of this project that none of that would go to waste. So we were actually able to recycle 10,000 board feet of wood from those trees,” said Warkentin.
That wood will be used for the food court area. A staircase going to the second floor will be built from the old gazebo and bleachers from the south pavilion will be built into the bench structure of the building.
“So there’s little bits of the 126-year history of Lethbridge and District Exhibition sprinkled throughout the design of this building,” he said.
The original building burned down in the early 1920s and as a tongue-in-cheek ode to that history is a water-vapour fireplace that will be built in the lobby.
Warkentin anticipates the first events being staged later in the spring and in the summer, the public will be welcomed in a way differently than they’ve ever experienced the Exhibition, he said.
There have been budget stresses during construction, the CEO acknowledged.
“We’ve obviously worked with significant budget constraints on this project. What we’re exceptionally proud of is that we’ve been able to maintain a value per square foot significantly under other projects in Alberta and here in the City of Lethbridge.
“It’s run over but we’ve found funding from other funding sources,” Warkentin noted.
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.
A financial ask from the Economic Standing Policy Committee of Lethbridge city council recently he pointed out, was to pay for deconstruction and decommissioning of the existing pavilion and less on budget overages on the facility itself.
“Our design team and our construction team have done a phenomenal job of keeping this project on track,” he added.
Bill Scales, project director of Ward Brother’s said on a daily basis 120-130 people are working onsite and 200,000 local man-hours have gone into building the Hub.
“Right from the onset, we knew this was a project we wanted to be involved with,” Scales said.
He said all people on the Ward team are from Lethbridge so there is a tremendous amount of pride being involved on such a project.
“It came together really quickly,” he said noting budget issues were addressed through cost-cutting but COVID created stress with material procurement.
Grier, said he was involved in the project since the spring of 2005 off and on over the years.
“I would probably break down and cry once this is done,” Grier said.
“It is a legacy project for me personally. I’ve invested everything personally into this project from managing the budget with the help of Ward Brothers and Lethbridge and District Exhibition,” he said.
When Ward Brothers brought the first construction cost plan forward, it was several million dollars over budget so it had to be reduced in a way that kept the facility functional.
“Over those months Not only did we have to do that, we had to simultaneously finish the design, get our building permits, meet all the requirements of the provincial grant with reporting and everything else . . .the City of Lethbridge has been a massive partner in that. They’ve been extremely helpful and co-operative along the way. It has not been an easy project from that perspective,” Grier added, with the single most difficult aspect of the project being budgetary restraint.
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