The City of Fredericton is looking to push the Fredericton Exhibition off the exhibition grounds on Smythe Street.
Although the Fredericton Exhibition says a move would kill the annual event, councillors voted Monday to start formal discussions to free the land for development.
There's one catch — the exhibition, formerly known as Frex and more recently as NBEx or the Ex, has a lease for the land.
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"That land ... is valuable to the residents of Fredericton for many reasons," Mayor Mike O'Brien said in an interview Tuesday with Information Morning Fredericton. "We're growing."
The city owns the land but Fredericton Exhibition Ltd. has been leasing the property since 1948. The lease runs in 21-year terms, and at least 16 years remain on the current one, O'Brien said.
Council's motion was aimed at getting talks started with the exhibition's board of directors to find a new location.
In the last five years, O'Brien said, 600 apartments were built in the downtown core. A new residential area along Smythe could house up to 1,000 people, he said.
"That pressure is not going away," he said. "We need a place for people to live."
O'Brien said that with fewer activities taking place on the grounds, including harness racing, the space "sits idle most of the time."
Exhibitions and events that do happen on the grounds can easily take place at sites such as the Grant-Harvey Centre, the mayor said.
"There's a one-week-a-year event called the Frex, which can happen at other locations," he said.
But Mike Vokey, the executive director of Fredericton Exhibition Ltd., said 500,000 people visit the exhibition grounds every year for the more than 50 events that happen there.
A new location would be a death sentence for the summer exhibition and other events.
Vokey said he's already suggested talks that would consider the needs of both the exhibition and the city.
"Maybe it's not moving, maybe it's partial development on this site," Vokey said. "Maybe there's a way to make this a win-win for everybody.
"And the city has refused."
Blames city for hurdles
Even before the vote, Vokey was aware of the city's interest in the exhibition grounds. His said his most recent meeting was in October with a city official looking to move the Ex to the Grant-Harvey Centre in Knowledge Park.
"We've been running into hurdles and roadblocks the city's been throwing up for years as we try to improve this facility for the people of Fredericton," Vokey said.
Vokey rejected the Grant-Harvey Centre as a suitable location for the New Brunswick Provincial Exhibition.
The space isn't large enough for the barns, parking or infrastructure required for the event.
"If the mayor wants to meet with us about moving to the Grant-Harvey, then I don't see that meeting taking place," he said.
"If he wants to talk about how do we determine what a suitable property would be, we would be happy to have a discussion."
But Vokey said the exhibition won't last if it's moved.
"If you move the exhibition to any location … it would be the end of the exhibition, it would be a matter of a few years," he said.
"The exhibition now is strong. It's growing stronger because of all the other events that we have on here."
Demand from public
O'Brien said the residential area would create an entirely new neighbourhood, with fewer cars because more people would be walking in the downtown area, and would lead to an increase in businesses.
He said housing on the exhibition grounds would give people who live outside the city a chance to live downtown.
"To be fiscally sustainable and green, we need density in our downtown core," he said.
In a statement, O'Brien said a recent request to develop a wellness centre prompted council to act. Brandon Brewer, a former boxer wanted to use the old Winner's Lounge at the Fredericton Exhibition Grounds for a new combat and wellness centre, but he needed permission from the city to lease it.
The city refused.
O'Brien said there have been noise complaints in the area, buildings have started to age, and there's been a push for residential projects.
"There's a lot of pressure and a lot of desire for people to want to live in our downtown," he said.