NORTH SYDNEY, N.S. – It may be the end of the track for Cape Breton horse and agricultural community members who have long utilized the North Sydney exhibition grounds as a major centre for their activities, shows and races.
The sprawling Regent Street facility, home to the annual Cape Breton County Farmers Exhibition and the Northside Downs harness racing track, is up for sale. Owned by the Cape Breton Federation of Agriculture, the 35-acre property has been listed with a local realtor. The asking price is $1.1 million.
The listing describes the property as being in the heart of North Sydney. It also promotes the facility’s many potential uses including being the possible future home of a giant housing subdivision. Indeed, it was recently announced that Sydney’s former Tartan Downs harness racing track, which last hosted a card of races in 2006, is being seriously considered for a possible transformation into a major construction development that includes residential housing.
HOLD YOUR HORSES
Stakeholders with vested interests in the exhibition grounds are not quite ready to admit defeat and ride off into the sunset.
Donnie MacNeil, who co-founded the Cape Breton Exhibition Society after word surfaced last summer about the possible sale, said there’s too much on the line to simply accept the federation’s decision to divest itself of the property, its assets and related activities.
“It’s well known that because of its dwindling membership, the federation has been having some difficulty maintaining the exhibition facility,” suggested MacNeil.
“That’s why we tried to give them an offer. The horse racing people also made an offer. Both were rejected. That was concerning because we felt there were other ways in which this could have been handled.
“We wanted an opportunity to sit with the board and to possibly propose a counter-offer or at least talk about some of the issues about what might be beneficial for all parties involved. But they refused to speak with us. We reached out on a personal and professional level more than a dozen times and we got no response.”
Rumours of the pending sale intensified last week. One of the facility’s major stakeholders is the Cape Breton Western Riders just happened to be holding their annual general meeting (AGM) on Sunday. The organization, which is dedicated to fostering horsemanship and sportsmanship, quickly made room on the agenda for discussion about the fate of the exhibition grounds.
Western Riders spokesperson Jennifer MacNeil, no relation to the aforementioned Donnie MacNeil, also expressed concern over the lack of communication with the Cape Breton Federation of Agriculture. She said a crowd of more than 100 people turned out to the group’s AGM at Sydney Mines’ John J. Nugent Firemen’s Centre which was a clear indicator of what the grounds mean to the community.
“Everybody is devastated, especially because we were all pumped and looking forward to returning to normal, which also meant returning to competition after COVID. It ruins it for so many of our members, especially our youth members,” she said.
“It’s frustrating because this group (the federation) that is supposed to be all about agriculture is not giving the facility a second chance. We’re hoping the government might be able to step in and do something. Maybe postpone the sale to give the society the chance to be heard and taken seriously so that the exhibition grounds is there for years to come.”
MacNeil said that at this point the Western Riders club is facing a lot of short-term uncertainty.
“We put the dates in for our shows back in December and they were basically approved at the time,” she noted.
“We were going forward but last week they sent us a very terse email that essentially pulled the plug on our season with little or no explanation other than they planned on selling the place and that they didn’t want us or anybody else there for the summer.”
A NEW OFFER
On the racing side, a group called Harness Racing Cape Breton is now spearheading the drive to make another, more collaborative, offer for the facility.
“We feel there is a real need for this and that it would be a shame to have it all just end,” said chairperson Joel LeBlanc, who refused to divulge financial details of the new offer.
“We are negotiating. We’re optimistic the property will include long-term horse use well into the future. The grounds have been a cornerstone of Cape Breton’s agricultural community for generations and we believe there is support for this to continue.”
Added the exhibition society’s MacNeil: “We’ve formed an alliance between the exhibition society and the racehorse people to combine our efforts to put forth a much stronger proposal – it only makes sense as we are the two biggest stakeholders.”
The exhibition grounds are located in Cape Breton Regional Municipality’s District 2, an area represented by Coun. Earlene MacMullin.
“My phone has been ringing non-stop,” she said.
“This is a big issue for the community. It’s about a facility that has served the community for generations and is a big part of people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, the area’s MLA, Liberal Fred Tilley, said he has been in contact with Nova Scotia Agriculture Minister Greg Morrow and will remain vigilant in keeping the matter in the public spotlight.
CHOMPING AT THE BIT
According to Donnie MacNeil of the Cape Breton Exhibition Society, exhibition grounds stakeholders are now chomping at the bit as the 2022 racing and events season gets closer.
“The race season is upon us, the horse event season is upon us – bookings have to be made, judges have to be hired, these things have to be planned in advance,” he said, adding that a consultant’s report from October of last year has given stakeholders some optimism about the grounds’ future.
“Even though the federation’s board of directors passed a unanimous motion to sell, it was made quite clear that it wasn’t necessarily to be sold to the highest bidder but instead reflect the proposal that made the most sense for the facility, the association and the community.”
MacNeil cited the importance of the facility as both a significant local economic driver and as a historic, traditional and culturally-rich entity.
“I met my wife there. My parents grew up there. My children have been involved and now I have grandchildren who I hope will be involved. And we’re just one family. You can talk to anybody in the local horse and agricultural communities and hear about the real sense of history at this facility,” he said.
“Losing it will have a huge impact.”
The Cape Breton Federation of Agriculture did not return the Cape Breton Post’s request for comment.
Northside Downs, which has a lease with the facility that runs for several more years, is set to kick off its 2022 harness racing season on May 14. Qualifying will take place on April 30 and May 7. The annual Cape Breton County Farmers Exhibition, which was cancelled the past two years due to COVID-19, has been an island tradition for more than 100 years.
– David Jala is a business reporter with the Cape Breton Post. Follow him on Twitter @CBPost_David.