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Sticky fingers on the commons 

Our FOI request reveals the true costs of rock and roll.

A general admission ticket for the upcoming Keith Urban concert costs $119, but even if you wouldn't spend a cent to see Urban and the rest of the "Country Rocks 2008" lineup, you're still paying for the show. There's a social cost to giving away the public Common for a commercial event (the Rolling Stones concert in 2006 paid one dollar to use the Common for three weeks). And in hard dollars, city hall and the province have each committed $150,000 towards concert-related expenses like traffic management and police. That $300,000 is more government funding than the Stones show received, in support of a lesser concert. And when a full investigation of the Stones funding reveals backroom dealing and cavalier attitudes about spending tax dollars, it's scary to think about what's going on behind the Urban gig.

In the case of the Stones---the only Common concert that's happened before Keith Urban---the city's post-show report paints a simple picture. It was a big deal, "attendance was originally estimated in excess of 80,000," which could only happen with government aid: "Council approved a grant of $100,000. At the same time the province approved a grant of $140,000 which was used to directly offset the cost of policing the event." But documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws put the facts of the city/province relationship in a different light.

In a fax dated July 5, 2006, city official Wayne Anstey asked for help from provincial tourism deputy minister Kelliann Dean. "Halifax Regional Council last evening approved continued negotiations with show promoters but capped HRM risk at $100,000," he writes. Since a show this big---attendance is pegged at "upwards of 100,000"---generates "significant economic impact to the province...we are requesting that the Province of Nova Scotia commit up to $175,000 to defray the costs of hosting this major concert opportunity."

Dean's reply, dated July 10 and cc'ed to then-tourism minister Len Goucher, prudently says the department will only spend what the city is spending. "I am pleased to advise that Tourism, Culture and Heritage is prepared to match HRM's investment and provide a one-time contribution of $100,000 for this event."

From printouts of emails in the documents the province released under FOI, it's clear the department then considers raising its commitment to $140,000. Copies of the all the documents are posted at thecoast.ca so you can follow the discussion, but the bottom line is that no more money is coming.

Firm in its commitment, if a bit sheepish about spending Nova Scotia dollars on the world's richest rock band, on July 20 the department braces for criticism. An email titled "Rolling Stones Concert---Key Messages & QAs" gives answers to likely media questions. At the top of the list: How much is the province investing in this event? "We are matching the municipality's investment of $100,000."

Tuesday, July 25 is the Rolling Stones news conference, where the $100,000 contribution is announced. Three days later---on Friday afternoon at 4:59---city official Dan English emails Dean to clear something up. "I understand that through conversations between Mayor Kelly and Minister Goucher, NS Tourism and Culture and Heritage has agreed to contribute $140,000 towards the costs of hosting the Rolling Stones Concert in September. If my understanding is correct, would you mind confirming, in writing, that this is in fact the case?"

The documents don't indicate Dean's reaction to the mayor and the minister tossing around $40,000 like two old boys with a ball. Whatever the reason, it takes her almost two weeks to respond to English. In an August 10 letter, she confirms "up to $140,000 to HRM to support your efforts to host the Rolling Stones." The concert happens September 23, drawing 50,000 fans on a rainy day, half the 100,000 people Dean was initially promised.

Expectations for Keith Urban are understandably lower, even as government support is higher. A complete accounting afterward will help us figure out how mayor Peter Kelly and crew pulled that off. Until then, the show must go on.

Read the source material: The series of Email exchanges between the City of Halifax officials and the Province, obtained by The Coast under the Freedom of Information Act.

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