Fredericton councillors have approved bylaw changes that close the door on harness racing events happening again at the New Brunswick Exhibition grounds.
In a move described by Mayor Kate Rogers as "housekeeping," councillors at Monday night's general meeting voted for changes to Fredericton's zoning bylaw that no longer permit the grounds on Smythe Street to be used as a racetrack and remove the term "horse racing" from the list of activities included in the definition of "public exhibition grounds."
While the City of Fredericton owns the 31-acre property, the N.B. Ex holds a long-term lease on it, expiring in 2032, and oversees operations at the site.
The property includes an indoor exhibit centre and coliseum, horse stables, the track and a parking lot with space for 1,000 vehicles.
Rogers said following an agreement with the N.B. Ex in 2021, the city formally adopted a secondary municipal plan that lays out a vision for redeveloping the site that would remove the racetrack to make way for apartment buildings, a park and potentially a new school.
Rogers said Monday night's vote was about updating the city's zoning bylaw so that it aligns with the already-adopted N.B. Ex secondary municipal plan.
Fredericton Mayor Kate Rogers says the changes are intended to clear up any confusion as to whether horse racing is allowed at the Exhibition Grounds. (Aidan Cox/CBC)
"That was a really important one because there was confusion in the community — is this [horse racing] allowed? Is it not allowed? And so it was really important that just everything aligned," Rogers said.
Rogers said it would still be possible to hold horse racing events at the site, but an organizer would first need to acquire a temporary variance permit from the city's planning advisory committee. She said other provincial approval would also be required given the site is a protected well-field area.
Backdrop of concerns
While Rogers described Monday's vote as housekeeping, it comes against a backdrop of concerns by some N.B. Ex members about the organization's readiness to make good on its earlier commitment to get rid of the race track.
At last November's annual general meeting, N.B. Ex executive director Jeff McCarthy told members he was hoping to see harness racing events return to the site in 2024, even though formal events haven't been held there since 2016.
Mike Vokey, former executive director of the New Brunswick Exhibition, said he hoped the zoning bylaw amendments would make it clear there's no chance of bringing back horse racing to the site in Fredericton. (Aidan Cox/CBC)
David Brown, a member of the N.B. Ex who's in favour of seeing the redevelopment carried out, at the time said comments by McCarthy and six newly elected board members at the annual meeting raised concerns about how ready and willing the organization is to give up the track.
"The six people who got elected, all of them made statements in general talking about how much they enjoy harness racing, how much, you know, they've valued being a member of the N.B. Ex and want to continue along the same path that it is right now," Brown said, in an interview last November.
Those concerns also follow discussions in fall 2022 by some Horse Racing New Brunswick members about a desire to "seize" the track at the N.B. Ex by encouraging its members to register for membership with the N.B. Ex to tip the board in their favour.
Months later, Mike Vokey, the Ex's executive director who worked on the redevelopment plan with the city, revealed he'd been fired after being told the board wanted to take the organization in "a different direction."
Vokey attended Monday's council meeting and said he hopes the zoning bylaw changes make it clear that harness racing isn't coming back to the N.B. Ex site.
"There's this perception that the plan isn't, you know, concrete or they can be changed. Well the plan, it really it can't. It's been accepted by both both the exhibition and the city," he said.
"So this really clears the path forward. I think there's an opportunity now. Maybe you'll see some interest from developers who … maybe come up with some plans and some ideas to really see how this could benefit the city and benefit the exhibition."
Differences in urgency to execute plan
Speaking after Monday's council meeting, Rogers said the amendments weren't a response to possible efforts to scuttle the redevelopment, and she remained adamant they were simply procedural.
But Rogers said while the city "feels a real sense of urgency" about redeveloping the grounds, she doesn't get the same energy from the board of the N.B. Ex.
"I think they very rightfully so are, as an organization, wondering whether they're going to be able to carry out some of the activities that they typically carry out on those grounds, and we have to respect that."
While options have been proposed as to how the site gets developed, a final decision rests with a committee made up of city councillors and staff, as well as N.B. Ex staff and board members. All final decisions will require consensus among members.
That committee has already started meeting and is working to agree on a list of terms of reference, said Ken Forrest, Fredericton's director of planning.
Once agreed to, members will get started on the first phase, which seeks to develop the northeast corner of the property by the end of this year, he said.
"Phase one would be trying to get a start at … a development happening there that would be supportive of the city's affordable housing ambitions," he said.