Colchester County bid to purchase facility contributed in decision, agriculture minister says
BIBLE HILL - Fast-tracked attempts by the County of Colchester to take over the Nova Scotia Provincial Exhibition (NSPE) contributed to a decision by the province to call in a loan held by the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board.
Keith Colwell, left, and Bob Taylor
"We weren't very happy with the way that the county handled all this," Agriculture Minister Keith Colwell told the Truro Daily News, shortly after announcing that the Nova Scotia Farm Loan Board had called in an outstanding loan owed by the NSPE commission and taken possession of its properties and assets.
The NSPE has a combined loan balance of nearly $422,000 to the Farm Loan Board, including arrears of more than $170,000.
Last week, Colwell announced that the province is planning to hire a company to conduct a financial audit of the facility to find out why it has not been financially successful.
Colchester County has been working on a plan to purchase the facility by paying off the $422,000 loan, a proposal that Colwell suggested was a concern, given that the facility's assets are worth between $6 million and $7 million.
"That had a factor in it but we wanted to make sure that we protected the asset long term and we wanted to make sure it stayed as a functioning exhibition ground and racetrack. I think that is critically important because it has a huge economic impact to the local economy," Colwell said.
"But the main thing was, the bills weren't being paid. And if the county would have been more patient, worked with us a bit, at the end of the day we might have given it to them anyway. But they were sort of jamming everything through before we got the audit done. We wanted to do the audit before we do anything. So that's critical."
After the province announced its intention to conduct an audit, he said Colchester County Mayor Bob Taylor tried to persuade him to back off and let the municipality conduct its own audit.
"I don't think there is any wrongdoing there but there was a big reluctance from some individuals there that didn't want this audit done. So once that starts happening it makes you ask questions," the minister said.
"We offered to the county, we'll do the audit, when the audit's all done, we'll share the audit with you and see if it makes sense for you to do this or not," he said, of the county's offer to purchase the facility.
"When someone is offering to do an audit for you, which could be very expensive, very expensive, it sort of makes you ask questions. You wonder why," he said. "It seemed a little bit strange.
"They were rushing things, there was no need to rush things. If they would have worked with us a little bit more we would have probably been a little more tolerant."
Another major problem with the county's proposal, Colwell said, is that the municipality legally could not operate the Truro Raceway because of its gambling proponent.
"They're not allowed to do that. That's gambling and they're not supposed to be in that business, so they can't do that. So that would have been a big problem," Colwell said.
Taylor said he was not aware of the fact the municipality could not run a racetrack, but, in a sense, he added, it would have been a moot point because part of the county proposal was that it would have leased the racetrack's operations to the NSPE board, had it been successful in obtaining the deed to the property.
"We weren't going to run anything," he said.
Taylor also expressed concern about the future of the NSPE under a provincial harness.
Taylor said he was also caught off guard with the provincial announcement.
"I had no idea this was coming," he said.
"It will be interesting. It's going to be a real devastating thing, I think in my opinion, for this area. That's taking it out of the community's hands and that's where I have a problem," he said.
"For somebody who doesn't live in the community to make that decision, that's pretty sad."
Colwell, however, said the province's interest is in ensuring a proper audit is conducted so that a more workable plan can be put into place to ensure the NSPE's bills are paid, along with its long-term debt and that efforts are made to ensure it can generate revenue for capital improvement and long-term success.
"The long-term goal is to get this thing working properly. And we don't want to run it, we're not interested in running it. But in the short term we've taken control until we get the thing sorted out and get the right kind of reporting mechanisms in place, the right accountability and the right team in place in the facility to make sure it does make money long term."