Future of Halifax convention centre uncertain

The federal Conservatives are in turmoil over, among other things, what public infrastructure to fund across the country -- a problem closely linked to the next election. The Quebec City arena, which got too hot and scared them off, is the big example. But there are others. The Halifax convention centre is one of those, and well it should be.

The immediate problem is that the public is largely against it, correctly sniffing out that in times of high austerity, public funding for a private project with a rationale that is weak at best and deceptive at worst raises a huge red flag.

Defence Minister and Atlantic political godfather Peter MacKay admitted as much in Antigonish a few weeks ago. "There is no desire outside of Halifax for this project, or very little from what I have heard," he said. By all appearances, there's minimal desire within Halifax as well. No big poll has dared ask the question, but a series of smaller ones from various sources, the incidence of letters to the editor to this newspaper and other taps of public opinion indicate city public opinion running from two-thirds to 85 per cent against it.

A key motive -- perhaps the only motive -- for the Tories to announce their $47-million share of the $160-million public part of the public-private project would be to advance the fortunes of Conservative candidates in metro. It may sink them instead, and do no good to the rural ones either, who have grumbled publicly, as funding for the convention centre implies less for other things elsewhere.

The bigger problem is the actual economics. They don't add up, and the harder the proponents of the project try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, the more obvious it becomes. There's a glut of money-losing convention centres, some brand new, throughout North America as business has been declining for 15 years, and is likely to keep doing so. In trying to torque this into the notion that business is booming (or, if not, that Halifax is immune from the general trend), the argument has slipped into misrepresentation.

At issue is the presentation Trade Centre Ltd. made to Halifax Regional Municipality on November 9, which led HRM to buy into the project. TCL's slides showed an impressive increase in convention business in Canada from 2005 to 2008.

The opposition Save the View group has been doing the math, and found that this information came from "private and proprietary" studies by Convention Centres of Canada of Vancouver, an industry promotion group. Figures from public sources, including the Conference Board of Canada, showed the reverse -- a decline in convention business across the board in that period. Furthermore, charges the group, TCL had "more reliable information they didn't divulge." Does this matter -- or were councillors prepared to swallow anything anyway, as long as it got a crane up in downtown Halifax?

The argument for it is that no matter what the cost in taxpayer funds, it will all come back in economic spinoffs. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives did an analysis and said that "prudent and conservative numbers from the centre itself" -- that is, even the optimistic scenario -- "indicate that it will lose in excess of $200 million over 25 years." Those of you who usually email me to say the CCPA is an "NDP front" can spare me this time. The main promoter of the convention centre is the NDP government.

What is disappointing here is the lack of vision shown by the developers, supported in that failure both by the provincial government and city hall. We have a clunker that hardly anybody wants -- with the fabled convention centre in the basement yet, calculated to serve lucratively as the foundation for the private hotel and office tower. The developers have said take it or leave it, and the province and the city took it. The idea seems to be that anything that provides a short-term burst of jobs, and that fills that empty space at midtown Halifax, must be a good thing, regardless of the long-term cost, which will in fact be $374 million over 25 years to the public.

Yet, I'm hearing of grumbling even among other developers and hoteliers who will feel the competition of a publicly supported hotel and office tower in a situation in which both sectors are already overstored. Parks Canada has complained too: Although Rank Inc.'s 14- to 18-storey towers will be within the letter of the view-planes laws, the spirit will be violated, diminishing the Citadel as a national tourist-drawing icon.

Any real small-c conservative out there must be gagging at this shoddy use of public funds. So, Peter MacKay, kill this awkward thing and send us back to the drawing board. This is at least one case where the public good and Conservative party interests actually coincide.

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

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