Reality Bites provides the best coverage of current affairs and political issues related to Halifax and City Council anywhere in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Oh, and we bring the snark, too. Contact jacob@thecoast.ca to send a tip.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The agave plant is dead

Halifax admits massive tropical plant is unlikely to ever bloom.

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 5:57 PM

The dead plant that couldn't bloom is Halifax's official flower. - VIA AYLA-MONIC M MCKAY, ON INSTAGRAM
  • The dead plant that couldn't bloom is Halifax's official flower.
  • VIA Ayla-Monic M McKay, on INSTAGRAM

Halifax's celebrity plant is pushing up daisies.

The agave inside the Public Gardens has been killed by Nova Scotia's chilly spring weather. Like so many of us in this town, it will never blossom.

Municipal spokesperson Erin DiCarlo says gardeners haven't seen much new growth from the plant since putting it outside and some of the older leaves are now becoming discoloured.

While there was some hope warmer temperatures in coming weeks could turn things around, it appears the agave has bit the dust.

“It is unclear at present whether the flowering will take place, however, it doesn’t look good at this stage,” says DiCarlo. “The weather has been the biggest challenge as it’s a tropical plant.”

Native to Mexico and the southwestern United States, the municipality's agave americana had been safe and warm during past cold months in HRM's greenhouse.

After 25 years it began sprouting a large flowering stalk earlier this spring and was moved to the Public Gardens so the general public could enjoy the once-in-a-generation event of watching it bloom.

[More accurately, as CBC notes, it was just getting too big to fit in the greenhouse.]

But a cold snap quickly ended the plant's growth, putting the vegetation into what HRM's horticulturalists hoped to be a temporary stasis. No such luck.

Technically, the agave has been dying ever since it sprouted its asparagus-like stalk. Once the plant flowers, or in this case doesn't flower, it dies.

Nevertheless, many shots of tequila will be poured tonight in honour of the departed.
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Province promises no payouts to lure conventions

But industry expert says those rebates and handouts are a “market reality.”

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 5:36 PM

So hot (hot damn). - VIA TWITTER

It’s standard practice elsewhere in the world, but government officials say it won’t be happening in Halifax.

The Halifax Convention Centre has no plans to offer financial incentives to attract business, promises Events East spokesperson Erin Esiyok-Prime.

At least, not any more than has already been spent.

The Crown corporation paid out just over $1 million appeasing conventioneers last year. Twenty-two national and international events in 2017 were impacted by the convention centre’s delayed opening.

Events East spent $870,000 mitigating that impact with discounted room rentals and services at the World Trade and Convention Centre, along with $120,000 for repairs and upgrades to align with client expectations and $37,000 on travel costs and meetings.

“Beyond the delay incentives noted above, Events East currently has no plans to offer financial incentives to attract business to the Halifax Convention Centre,” writes Esiyok-Prime in an email to The Coast.

But market expert Heywood Sanders doesn’t expect that policy will last very long.

“The reality is in Canada as well as the US, incentives including free centre rent and other things have become the norm,” says the American professor and author of Convention Center Follies. “It is a market reality.”

Sanders points to San Francisco, which discounts $6 million a year attracting meetings to its convention centre. Likewise, the city of Los Angeles offers free first-year rent and signing bonuses for multi-year bookings.

Those incentives are even more common in a convention space’s first year of operations so stakeholders can “kick the tires.”

“That’s how the deal works these days,” Sanders says. “You want to get their convention, they say give us the centre free and give us money too.”

The money doesn't have to come from operators either. Ontario, like many jurisdictions, has provincial Convention Development Funds to discount rents.

Provincial spokesperson Kelly Bennett says Nova Scotia's government hasn’t set aside any sort of similar CDF for Events East. Besides the money paid out last year, “we are not aware of any other incentives planned or being offered for booking events in the new Convention Centre,” says Bennett.

But the Crown corp does need some help marketing its new facility. A request for tenders issued this week is asking for marketing and communications services to assist in selling the Halifax Convention Centre on a global stage.

The outside hire will support in-house marketing efforts geared towards a “highly targeted” group of clients through advertising campaigns, social media strategies and creative development. Annually that’ll work out to anywhere between $75,000 and $250,000 worth of work, according to estimates in the RFP.

One place potential convention planners can save money with Events East, though, is at the banquet table. Esiyok-Prime says rental costs for booking the HCC are negotiated on a sliding scale based on food and beverage revenue.

“Our pricing strategy factors in the competitive environment, profitability and projected economic and community impact of the event,” she says.

No additional bait is needed to hook the whales, says Events East. The Halifax Convention Centre is at capacity in its first year of operations, with 120 events booked and an expected 80,000 visitors.

Don't pop the cork just yet, though. Sanders says the cold reality of the convention game is you have to pay to play. Charm alone won’t bring events to your shores.

“You may think you have the most lovely city on the face of the Earth, but so do lots of other people in lots of other cities,” he says. “Is Halifax and Nova Scotia such a desirable destination that this is all irrelevant? My guess is no.”
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Is Meghan Markle a Haligonian?

🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 4:42 PM

screen_shot_2018-05-23_at_4.46.24_pm.png


No.
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City hall bends over backwards to make Armco happy

Developer helps HRM draft bylaw amendments for its Willow Tree project.

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2018 at 9:42 AM

CAO Jacques Dubé (centre left) consults with planning staff and legal director John Traves in the middle of Tuesday's meeting. - THE COAST
  • CAO Jacques Dubé (centre left) consults with planning staff and legal director John Traves in the middle of Tuesday's meeting.
  • THE COAST

You can't fault the customer service.


City council voted on Tuesday to move forward for the second time with a public hearing for the controversial Willow Tree development at the corner of Quinpool Road and Robie Street. The decision was made after a last-minute scramble to once again rewrite HRM’s planning bylaws in order to best suit the financial needs of developer Armco.

Previously, council had rejected a development agreement for 20 storeys on the site under the advice of George Armoyan’s property firm, who advised the city in an unsolicited update last year that the shorter height wasn’t profitable.

Instead, the city moved forward with a 25-storey proposal that would include 10 affordable housing units and some other public amenities like the burial of overhead electrical and telephone wires.

But according to the staff report before council Tuesday, “undergrounding” those wires would be extremely expensive for Armco, and the company feels shouldering that cost on its own is unfair given neighbouring landowners would also benefit from the burial.

Councillor Shawn Cleary, attempting to help, put forward an amendment whereby the developer could instead trade the dollar value of burying the wires for an equal amount of affordable housing.

This brought a warning from CAO Jacques Dubé. If burying the electrical wires is too expensive then a commensurate cash payment elsewhere would likewise be too rich for the company’s blood.

“I think that would literally kill the project,” advised Dubé.

Maybe. But Willow Tree has proven exceptionally hard to kill.

Armco has put forward several designs for the site over the past four years to moderate success. Council first approved a 29-storey tower on the lot, against the recommendation of staff. Shortly after the last municipal election that design was pruned back to just 20 storeys in order to better fit planning principals written into the draft Centre Plan.

Then came the sudden bulletin from Armco that the company would need at least 25 storeys to make the project financially viable. Charitably, the developer was willing to trade 10 affordable housing units (maintained for 15 years) in exchange for the increased height.

Planning staff came back with a supplemental report containing several methods for installing a single-use density bonusing agreement. One of those scenarios used the formula contained in the Centre Plan to calculate Willow Tree would need 36 affordable housing units (or $3.27 million in public benefit) to earn the extra density.

As an alternative, councillor Cleary created his own impromptu formula by taking the 10 affordable units Armco wanted to offer and from that “reverse engineered” a public benefit of $900,000.

The months of special considerations for Armco’s needs based on private financial information HRM isn't able to actually review didn't sit well with councillor Tim Outhit on Tuesday.

“If we were going to apply for a loan at a bank today, ‘Just trust me I can afford to drive a Mercedes. I make $150 million a year.’ Well, we would be thrown out.”

An exhausted Outhit said city council was being asked to “suck and blow at the same time here” by approving a proposal based on Armco’s business needs without any proof what the company says is true.

Armco representative Adam McLean told reporters after the meeting that Outhit is entitled to his opinion, even if he doesn't agree with the councillor's remarks.

“We sometimes hear staff say things to council we can’t correct,” McLean said. “This has been going on for four years and we’ve had 10 minutes to speak in front of council, so it is tough to get all the information back and forth.”

Chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé—the man who first brought forward Armco’s financial difficulties for council’s considerations—responded to Outhit’s concerns by stressing that a private company’s financial books should not be open to the public.

“We’re in the business of regulating the use of land,” Dubé said without irony. “Financial considerations are really the business of business.”

Dubé, legal director John Traves and planning staff immediately then went off for a closed-door meeting with McLean to suss out an amendment better tailored to Armco’s wishes.

The newly modified agreement that came back two hours later gives the developer several options on how to proceed: Armco can bury the lines and offer up 10 affordable units; not bury the wires and build 20 affordable units; build 10 units and pay HRM $900,000 in cash towards an affordable housing fund that doesn’t exist yet or just scrap the affordable units altogether and cut a cheque for $1.8 million.

“It’s good to have the flexibility,” said McLean. “That’s more recognizing that affordable housing right now is done through the province, so if there are any complications with trying to get an agreement done with the province on affordable housing, there’s still an option for the municipality to still get the value.”

Any affordable housing built into Willow Tree will depend on Armco signing some sort of official agreement with the provincial government. Given Nova Scotia’s track record with other housing projects, that's far from a guarantee.

“I still feel like we’re going off of hopes and possibilities,” said area councillor Lindell Smith. “I just don’t feel we’re really working with actual possibilities here.”

The amended motion passed 13-3, with only councillors Smith, Sam Austin and Waye Mason voting against.

The second and potentially final public hearing on Willow Tree will take place at a future date, yet to be determined.
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In Print This Week

Vol 26, No 16
September 13, 2018

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