There are no plans to sell the showgrounds ... yet!This is according to Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) chief executive officer, Terry Strachan, commenting about ongoing speculation in the city regarding the future of the showgrounds.The Witness heard, during its coverage of the rental dispute between the RAS and Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business (PCB), that an unnamed property developer had put in a proposal to the RAS, to buy the entire showgrounds, and establish a specialist training hospital and conference centre there.PCB chief executive officer Melanie Veness cryptically noted at a meeting of PCB members that “something has happened” that has prompted the RAS to demand what she termed is an “unconscionably” high rental increase from the PCB (38% in the first year).The PCB has its headquarters in the showgrounds.Strachan said the rental negotiations have nothing to do with the future of the site.He added that there have been “nibbles, not definitive expressions of interest” from developers to buy the showgrounds over the years, but nothing is on the table at present.However, rising costs and the problems of hosting an event like an agricultural show in an increasingly urbanised and industrial environment, meant that agricultural shows all around the world have, sooner or later, had to move from an urban to a more peri-urban environment.Some of these pressures include: the growing need for parking, traffic being backed up around the showgrounds and into the city; having to pay steep urban property rates and municipal tariffs; and the logistics of, for instance, moving over 1 000 head of cattle into the showgrounds.“Animals escape. They do almost every year. We’ve had to catch bulls that have run down Townbush Road,” said Strachan.The movement of agricultural shows to a peri-urban environment is an established trend overseas.For instance, the Sydney Royal Easter Show, the single biggest annual event in Australia, was held at Moore Park for 116 years. In 1998 it moved to the Sydney Olympic Park Precinct.The former showground at Moore Park has since been converted into Fox Studios Australia, with an associated development known as The Entertainment Quarter.Strachan said the RAS had in fact raised the growing pressure of urbanisation at its annual general meeting earlier this month.“It is possible — especially if the economy moves into an upswing — that a proposal, worthy of serious attention, could at some future date be forthcoming, and may even warrant acceptance,” according to the minutes from this meeting.The RAS envisages two possible operating models should the showgrounds be sold.The first could be based on the Cape Show, where, even though their showgrounds in Woodstock were sold 20 years ago, the Society remains involved in supporting agricultural events.These include the annual Cheese Expo and the country’s largest dairy show. Alternatively, the model could be based on the Royal Highland and Royal New Zealand Shows, whereby fallow land is secured for future exhibitions.This could be property in the Midlands of about 15 to 20 hectares, near Pietermaritzburg.Nick Proome, a director of Durban architectural firm Elphick Proome Architects, said there will be property investors who will be interested in developing portions of the showgrounds, but he added, no redevelopment proposal could be considered before environmental impact studies and land rezoning applications are completed, processes that could take 24 months.Elphick Proome designed the Oceans Umhlanga mixed use development, and was involved in the redevelopment of the old fairground portion of the northerly precincts of the showgrounds 12 years ago, which now house the Standard Bank and Absa regional facilities.Speculating on what development might be able to take place at the showgrounds, he said it should be an integrated mixed use development providing business and residential opportunities, together with recreational elements for the citizens of Pietermaritzburg. The redevelopment should take place within a precinct where the overall urban and architectural qualities are controlled through an urban design scheme and architectural design controls. In this way, new buildings could respect the fine architectural heritage of the city whilst creating a vibrant contemporary “work, live, play” environment. Residential components should be used to encourage 24-hour use of the site.“It’s not for me to say what the future of the showgrounds will be. It will be up to the society to assess how they can best serve their mandate from agriculture into the future,” said Proome.