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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Million dollar boondoggle

Secrecy and delays plague new convention centre.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2013 at 7:36 AM

Excavation continues at the new convention centre site, even though developer Joe Ramia has yet to apply for development or building permits.
  • Excavation continues at the new convention centre site, even though developer Joe Ramia has yet to apply for development or building permits.

This year, the provincial and city governments have given over $1 million to Trade Centre Limited for promotion of the new convention centre. The city’s share, $640,000 was presented to Halifax council on the 18th slide of a PowerPoint presentation during the April budget deliberations. The provincial share, $487,000, was never announced publicly until The Coast started asking questions. The province has budgeted another $300,000 to the fund for next year.

The money is over and above TCL’s usual marketing efforts, which are normally covered by the crown corporation’s annual operating budget.

According to provincial spokesperson Tina Thibeau, expenditure of the money is overseen by the Marketing and Sales Committee, which consists, on the city side, of CAO Richard Butts and chief financial officer Greg Keefe. Provincial members of the committee are Simon d'Entremont, the deputy minister for the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism, and his assistant, who Thibeau does not name.

Besides the total budget amount, city, provincial and TCL spokespeople all decline to release budget details of the fund.

One expenditure from the fund went to the National Public Relations, which recently acquired MT&L, the Halifax firm that was awarded the un-tendered Ships Start Here campaign. National won a tendered offer to perform various public relations duties related to the new convention centre, including building the Halifax2016.ca website. But all the various government spokespeople refuse to reveal the value of the National contract. Scoring sheets for the tender were not provided to The Coast.

Meanwhile, excavation for the new convention centre continues on a hurried seven-days-a-week schedule, but actual construction of the building is mired in delay, and developer Joe Ramia has yet to apply for a development agreement or building permits.

Unlike most cities in North America, Halifax has no grading ordinance, so property owners can dig all the holes they want on their property without permits. Actual construction of a building, however, requires building permits. Additionally, new construction downtown, including the new convention centre, must go through the HRM By Design process and must be approved the Design and Review Committee.

The delays for the convention centre hinge on the need for an agreement between the province and Ramia. Department of Transportation and Infrastructural Renewal spokesperson Pam Menchenton won’t say what is causing the delay.

That delay is in turn pushing back the potential sale of the existing World Trade and Convention Centre. According to a contract between the province and city, approved by city council last July, the province was to put WTCC up for sale by June 30, 2013. That won’t happen, as in March, CAO Richard Butts quietly signed to an amendment to the contract, without telling council or the public. The amendment says the province doesn’t have to put WTCC up for sale until 90 days after the province comes to agreement with Ramia.

This means WTCC will be on the open market for a much shorter time than originally foreseen, and so it becomes less likely that a private buyer will be found. If not, then the city will be required to buy the building in 2016.

The city’s price for WTCC is contractually established as the higher of two prices: the market value of the building as of December 31, 2012 or the book value of the building as of January 1, 2016. The city and province jointly hired an independent appraiser to establish the December 31, 2012 value, but the city refuses to tell The Coast what that value is.

Even the excavation on Argyle Street is bound in secrecy. Pyretic slate from the site is being trucked to the Halifax Port Authority’s Fairview terminal, to facilitate a future expansion of the terminal. That expansion has long been on the drawing board, but beyond accepting the slate, there is no approved plan for actual construction, says Port spokesperson Michelle Peveril.

Until last year, the Waterfront Development Corporation was accepting pyretic slate at its Mill Cove site in Bedford, with a publicized charge of $15 per cubic yard for disposal. But Peveril refuses to tell The Coast how much, or if, Ramia is being charged for dumping slate from the convention centre site at the Port.

Ramia has hired Dexter Construction to haul the slate, and Dexter is using a city-owned lot next to the port as a staging area without charge, says Chase.

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