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White elephant 

The convention centre could bankrupt city government, and except for Tom Martin, mayoral candidates either support it or won’t take a stand.

click to enlarge GRAHAM PILSWORTH
Two weeks ago I criticized mayoral candidate Mike Savage for his continued support for the proposed convention centre, and for what appears to be an unwillingness to challenge provincial crown corporation Trade Centre Limited---an issue that will come front and centre in city politics when auditor general Larry Munroe issues his report on TCL’s improper and unauthorized lifting of the city-owned Metro Box Office.

I then asked other candidates what they thought.

“The growth of our core will depend on a world class facility and an ability to host,” responded Fred Connors, demonstrating no understanding of convention centre financing beyond the mindless bumper sticker sloganeering we’ve come to expect from convention centre proponents. To be fair, I did ask via Twitter, and Connors did go on to at least question the Box Office arrangement: “Box office accounts should be unmingled,” he wrote. “How TCL manages the MC box office is very confusing.”

Other mayoral candidates are either non-committal---”I have not taken a position [on the convention centre] as yet but can say I am skeptical at this point,” wrote Vince Hall---or unresponsive; I can find no stated positions on the convention centre from candidates David Boyd or Matt Worona. But it’s way past time for being “skeptical” about the convention centre---anyone who seriously wants to head our city government long ago should have been intimately aware of the details, and should have taken a position one way or the other.

The exception is candidate Tom Martin, who wrote two thoughtful essays explaining his positions, and posted them on his web site, “Ticket Atlantic (Metro Centre Box Office) should be the responsibility of the Metro Centre, and I have not read or heard anything to convince me otherwise,” he writes.

On the convention centre, Martin doesn’t oppose it outright, but concludes that since there are so many uncertainties, and since there has never been any true public consultation regarding the convention centre, the project should not go ahead until there is a “plebiscite or a referendum” showing broad public support for it.

Martin’s right, and the convention centre should be the central issue in the mayoral race, for two reasons. First, there are reports that developer Joe Ramia is about to announce he’s found tenants for the “financial centre” part of the larger project, and so convention centre construction is imminent.

But recall that just a three-month delay in getting a commitment for federal government funding resulted in Ramia’s cost for the convention centre rising $4.4 million, which the feds assumed. Since then, 11 more months have passed; surely, normal inflation in the over-heated construction industry have increased costs for the convention centre something like $10 million more. Ramia’s not in this for charitable reasons---I have little doubt he’ll soon be knocking on government doors, possibly city hall’s doors, asking for still more money. Before we vote for them, our mayoral candidates should tell us how they’d react to that request.

Second, and more to the point, existing financing arrangements for the convention centre, without an increase for Ramia, are a horrible deal for the city. The figures presented as fact by TCL and convention centre *supporters*---the dubious, best-case scenario, which anticipates a wildly successful convention centre, triggering a booming downtown---shows that the city’s portion of the $383.9 million convention centre costs will be $6.65 million a year for 25 years; in return, the city will receive back an increase of just $3 million annually in increased property taxes from throughout the downtown core. And no, I’m not leaving anything out: the very best the city will do financially is lose $90 million. That’s $90 million that could otherwise be spent on parks or buses or garbage collection.

The bigger worry is that despite the mindless boosterism and sloganeering about Halifax being “different” than all the other cities with failed convention centres, we in fact are building a white elephant. If so, the financing arrangement for the new convention centre has the city eating fully half of all the losses, with no limit (the province will assume the other half). This could, quite literally, bankrupt the city.

The convention centre is too big an issue for mayoral candidates not to address head on.

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