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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Commonwealth Games West

The Vancouver Olympic fiasco is what Halifax would have looked like had the Commonwealth Games went forward

Posted By on Wed, Jan 14, 2009 at 9:42 AM

The city of Vancouver is desperately trying to find $485 million to cover cost overruns and the loss of financing for the Olympic Village, and as a result the city faces a potential downgrade in its credit rating, which will cost taxpayers millions more in increased borrowing costs.

Vancouver's problems are nearly identical to the mess Halifax would have faced had it successfully won the bid for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The bizarre and unrealizable budget assumptions for running the Games drawn up by Halifax 2014, the bid committee, was reason enough for Nova Scotian pols to nix the effort, but the nail in the coffin involved the proposed Athletes Village near Dartmouth's Shannon Park.

As my Commonwealth Games investigation revealed, the "plan," such as it was—-it's like Halifax 2014 was sitting around a bar, shit-faced drunk, just plugging in whatever numbers worked on the back of cocktail napkins and then asking the city to underwrite the deal—-the plan was to find a private developer to buy Ocean Breeze—-a dilapidated apartment complex wedged in behind the McKay Bridge toll plaza, and which has no view of the harbour—-rebuild it as the Athlete's Village, then, after the Games, recoup costs by selling it as condos. Problem was, no private developer wanted anything to do with the plan. Here' s what I wrote in 2007:

As for the Athletes Village, "no detail has been provided in the Business Plan regarding the construction of the village," he wrote. "Pieces gleamed from various documents would indicate an extremely complex and risky project."

The Athletes Village was originally planned for Shannon Park, but that plan was abandoned due to land constraints. Instead, Halifax 2014 planned to place the Athlete's Village at Ocean Breeze Estates, on the other side of the Circumferential Highway from Shannon Park.

Ocean Breeze is a sprawling and dilapidated complex of three-storey apartment buildings wedged between the MacKay Bridge toll plaza and DND land in the Burnside area. The complex is more than a kilometre from the proposed Shannon Park stadium site, and affords no views of the harbour, as it is blocked by the highway and the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. It does, however, presently serve as low-income housing for several thousand residents.

Halifax 2014 expected a private developer to purchase Ocean Breeze, reconstruct it for the Athletes Village, and then afterwards market it for its own purposes. No developer was interested, however, and neither was Ocean Breeze's present owner, the Elia Corporation, interested in selling. If no private deal could be found, HRM would have to acquire Ocean Breeze through expropriation.

"It is recognized that this area is not considered to be a desirable location," admitted Halifax 2014 officials in a written response to McMahon. "It is very much dependent on the Dartmouth market, and that tends to be a secondary market to Halifax. There is no plan B. The key is developers' interest. During the evaluation process the CGF will look for guarantees, and that will likely fall to the city to underwrite [the village costs]."

A second independent consultant's report, prepared by the auditing firm Price Waterhouse Coopers for the province and HRM, echoed McMahon's concerns about Ocean Breeze. That report noted the potential HRM expenditure for Ocean Breeze would be $212 million—an amount not included in the Halifax 2014 budget and over and above the city's $200 million original commitment.

Understand that this was before the recent financial meltdown. The actual situation would have been much, much worse.

Had the Commonwealth Games moved forward, the city of Halifax would have essentially been bankrupt, for decades.

And there's still a larger point to be made: there were, and are, political players who were responsible for the near-disaster that hit Halifax.

As I explained in my follow-up investigation of Halifax 2014:

Just a couple of months after Halifax 2014 [fell apart], a new political group called Citizens For Halifax announced its existence, and said it was dedicated to removing every Halifax city councillor from office and putting its own candidate in the mayoral chair.

Those mentioned in media reports as members of the group include Fred MacGillivray, Don Mills and Rick Emberley—-all of whom were closely connected to Halifax 2014. MacGillivray says he is "not active" with the group. But one of his closest business associates, TCL communications manager Barb Stegemann, is at the forefront of Citizens For Halifax.

Moreover, Citizens For Halifax readily admits that it is modelling itself after Vancouver's Non-Partisan Association, which successfully advocated for the Vancouver Olympics. Many people and companies associated with that organization also did work for Halifax 2014.

Partly as a result of the Olympics funding fiasco, the inaccurately named Non-Partisan Association (it is a front for the development industry) was trounced in the November Vancouver municipal elections, taking only one of ten seats on the city council.

We dodged a bullet in Halifax. Hopefully, with the Vancouver experience before us, we can pass over the "developers take over the city council and bankrupt the treasury" thing, and skip right to the "throw the bastards out on their asses" part.

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