It's decision time on Halifax convention centre

Be a man, stop shilly-shallying and give this revitalizing project the go-ahead, says one side.

Be a man, stop shilly-shallying and stop this foolishness dead in its tracks, says the other.

This is what Premier Darrell Dexter is getting in both ears as decision time draws nigh on the proposed convention centre/hotel complex for downtown Halifax.

Since it's going to get scorched no matter what, minimizing the outrage is the best the NDP government can hope for politically.

It is, therefore, proper that the premier and his divided cabinet ignore the hollering and take the time to make a decision they can reasonably defend -- whatever it is.

The two sides, carrying on the downtown development wars going back to the 1960s, are so bitter towards each other that there seems to be no chance of the decision being acceptable to everybody.

Nevertheless, since the whole province is implicated with its tax dollars, there is a broad middle to address beyond the warring factions.

The question is how public money is to be spent. I'll leave the aesthetics to the warring factions, although that's what drives the mutual odium.

One side can't stand all those empty spaces downtown and blames the other for blocking development and making Halifax a laggard among cities.

The other blames the developers and their supporters for wanting to impose crass commercialism on a historic city and blocking iconic views from Citadel Hill.

A flat no to the convention centre seems out of the question, at least not without some new plan, although that too seems improbable.

From all indications a yes is likely -- despite the bleak economics surrounding convention centres throughout North America that are only apt to get worse. After all, if Ottawa and the city are also going to cough up a third each, the attraction of a short-term economic boost in the construction phase -- the only sure thing in this project -- will be hard to pass up.

If so, a number of questions would need some hard answers to make the $500-million project ($160 million plus interest in public money for the convention centre part) palatable beyond the combat zone.

One is the question of cost overruns that have run amok in similar projects in other cities. In this case, the government briefing this week stated that the developer would be responsible for all overruns. Do we have that in writing?

If so, similar guarantees will be needed on other aspects of the public-private partnership. The odour of bad P3s left by the auditor-general's last report is still in the air.

The briefing also stated that the government "hopes" Ottawa will cough up a third of the cost, or $47 million. And if it doesn't? Or pulls out completely in some ideological snit? Is the project actually still dependent on negotiations with Ottawa?

And out here in the country, we'd like to have the economics explained again ... and again. At this week's briefing, Scott Ferguson, CEO of the Crown corporation that operates the existing convention centre, said revenue from a new trade centre would double and more within 10 years.

Would that be from new, bigger conventions once we have the room to handle them, which the present facility doesn't? That's the usual explanation.

But North America is littered with cities which have expanded their convention centres only to find business dropping -- dropping for 15 years in the industry generally, through boom and bust alike. Dozens of new convention centres have been built in the last decade. Only two -- Orlando and Las Vegas -- saw a rise in the order Ferguson describes, although they've dropped again in the last two years. Is there something that enchanting in the Halifax air that will keep them flocking here but nowhere else?

Or is the argument more sophisticated than that? I keep hearing it -- spinoffs, new gung-ho spirit downtown. Yes, we want to fill that empty space with something, but this still sounds eerily like the old highway-to-nowhere rationale -- build it and they'll come.

In short, what are the implications in terms of provincial budgets if convention centre business stays the same or drops? Within the divided cabinet, I wonder in particular what Finance Minister Graham Steele is saying, and the next person on the budgetary firing line -- Health Minister Maureen MacDonald, who will have to explain why this or that expensive therapy can't be afforded but a convention centre can.

Granted that the provincial payments are only going to start when the project is finished, when the budget will theoretically be balanced, but it's going to be a tough argument to make anyway. Stuff like that is why, I'd say, the cabinet is taking time.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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