After the Town of Ponoka announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Ponoka Stampede Association (PSA) on June 26, some questions remained.
According to the town’s communications manager Sandra Smith, the town has been discussing the land transfer to the PSA for a year and a half.
”These were exploratory discussions that acknowledged the benefits of the long-term partnership and collaboration between the town and the Stampede Association,” said Smith in a provided statement.
The concept of an MOU started to take shape in January, 2020. The draft of the MOU was presented to council in an in-camera session on June 22.
Ponoka resident Warren Hart feels the land transfer would be far more beneficial to the PSA than to Ponoka, or to the businesses in the downtown core.
Warren also questions why the transfer is a gift to the PSA and not a sale.
“Surely the town could use the funds to provide services to taxpayers,” he said.
“How will the town benefit more than it does now by the transfer of this land?”
Hart added that the stampede is on for seven days of the year, but other activities go on throughout the year.
“If the Stampede was a private, for-profit organization that did not benefit or support the community, a land transfer would not be given consideration,” said the written statement from the town.
“However, the Ponoka Stampede Association is a non-profit organization that provides ongoing support and benefits to the community in multiple ways.”
Hart is also skeptical that the development of an Area Structure Plan, which is a part of the MOU, will do much to ensure development is in the best interest of the town.
“If the PSA owns this land what control does the town have over future development of this land? How does it impact the taxpayers? What kind of commercial development would take place and where would it go? Why isn’t the town doing this development if they already own the land?” he said.
The town says the goal of the ASP would be “to maximize economic impact generated by land use in that area, and increase visitor traffic to Ponoka and to “guide future development on the Stampede lands, as well as for the surrounding area bounded by Highway 53, Highway 2A, the Battle River to the south and the CP rail line to the east.
“By creating a vision for the future development and use of land in that ‘Stampede District,’ the goal is to help maximize economic benefits and the future success of the Stampede, surrounding businesses, and the community of Ponoka as a whole.”
For the PSA and its president Bruce Harbin, the land transfer is the culmination of many agreements that have benefited the Stampede, the town and the residents.
“The PSA has had numerous deals with the town and obtained several parcels over the years,” said Harbin in an interview.
“Back when it started in 1936, there was a lot of bush and slough surrounding the area and nothing was really developed for some time. Since then, the area and the Stampede have grown and expanded. This transfer is simply just a cleaner and easier way for the PSA to continue to exist going forward.”
Harbin feels the creation of an ASP is an important piece of the deal.
“This is a big piece that will bring things together, creating a cohesive theme for the area bordered by the Battle River, Hwy. 53 and Hwy. 2A,” he said.
“There is (also) a stipulation in the deal that a committee with members of the PSA and the Town of Ponoka will continue to meet and communicate on future development and other issues,” said Harbin.
Currently, there is no town Stampede committee, but Mayor Rick Bonnett and Coun. Ted Dillon act as liaisons between the town and the PSA.
The original news release from the town about the signing of the MOU stated that the PSA has leased the land in question for a “nominal fee” since the 1930s.
However, in the statement provided to Ponoka News on July 13, it says town records show the PSA has leased the land for no-charge since at least 1976, and has possibly never paid for the lease.
The PSA is currently paying a commercial property tax rate on some of its land and anticipates that will continue.
Previously, the PSA was given the title to properties that include the current campground and area to the north side of Hwy. 53, land to the west of the track along with turns three and four, land to the west plus some property to the north.
According to the town, the main exhibition grounds at the Stampede is exempt from taxation under the MGA, as it is property that is held by a non-profit organization and is used solely for community purposes.
The Stampede will pay $22,274.81 in municipal property tax in 2020 on the portion of other land that it owns which is not exempt under the MGA.
The Stampede also paid $17,890.52 in municipal utilities in 2019. These numbers were shared by the town with the permission of the PSA.
What this transfer actually does is finally complete the PSA’s land holdings, by transferring what was left — primarily the current grandstand, infield and turns one and two — on the 50-year lease, which Harbin believed had about 33 years left on it.
“By transferring ownership of the land, the town is essentially making permanent the arrangement that has been in place since the late 1930s, allowing the Stampede free use of the land so it can more confidently continue investing millions of dollars into expanding its infrastructure and operations on that property into the future,” the town said in the statement.
Hart asserts that all the activity up at the Stampede grounds during Stampede week hurts Ponoka more than help it, as the beer gardens are in direct competition to local bars and restaurants rather than drawing people to the downtown core.
Hart, who has lived in Ponoka his whole life, says 30 years ago, the Stampede benefited the downtown area, as people filled the streets.
Now, those streets remain empty except for before and after the parade, he says.
“When the town touts the benefits of the Stampede to the local economy, my questions are where? What? Why?” said Hart.
“What I’m asking for is accountability of these so-called ‘benefits.’”
To that, the town points to the 35,000 annual visitors the Stampede brings into town, the approximately $251,000 received by more than 20 local community clubs and organizations, the $795,000 spent on operational expenses in Ponoka in 2019 and the roughly $42,000 on the parade.