First look at convention centre costs: City will be asked to pay $57 million

Total public spending is $160 million according to government plan

The proposed convention centre for downtown Halifax will cost taxpayers $160 million, with the province and city each contributing $57 million, and the federal government providing the balance, $46 million. These budget figures were included in a detailed proposal given to the provincial NDP caucus last Wednesday, and were provided to The Coast by Halifax MLA Howard Epstein.

Infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks, who is overseeing the convention centre project for the Darrell Dexter government, declined Monday to comment on possible financing schemes and would not confirm Epstein's figures.

“It’s too rich for our blood; it’s too expensive,” says Epstein. “I don’t think the province can afford to add $57 million to our debt. I don’t think HRM taxpayers want to add $57 million to HRM’s debt and put upwardly pressure on property taxes---so it’s way too expensive.”

The expected $57 million contribution from the city comes as news to Halifax councillors, who had expected only to provide minimal logistic support for the convention centre.

“That’s a lot of money,” says councillor Jerry Blumenthal, who has been supportive of the convention centre proposal. “That’s going to require a lot of thinking. Where do we get it? I’m hesitating; I care very much about my residents, and I don’t want their taxes going up. I’m going to have to see it on paper, how we’re going to pay for it.”

“If we were $30 million in the hole last year, and we had to make all the cuts we did, what do you think $57 million will do?” asks councillor Dawn Sloane. “If it looks like it’s too rich for our blood, then I’ll have to pass. And I’m one who thinks we need a new convention centre. But we need a lot of things. We need a stadium, or a partnership with a university on a stadium, we need a cultural arts centre, we need an aquarium on the waterfront. But if we don’t get tax reform, where the suburbs are paying their full share, then this will bankrupt the downtown.”

The city has recently embarked on two large capital projects---the $50 million central library downtown and the $41 million four-pad arena in Bedford---that have stretched HRM’s debt policies. During a recent budget update given to council, finance director Cathie O’Toole warned that incurring additional debt might affect the city’s credit rating, leading to increased costs for borrowing.

Epstein publicly raised objections to the convention centre earlier this month via an electronic newsletter distributed to constituents, and elaborated on those objections in an interview Friday. His concerns range from financial to philosophical to aesthetic.

“I’ve always been clear that I’m very much in favour of development in downtown Halifax---it certainly needs it---but not this development,” says Epstein. “The buildings are way too tall. I think the height and the design will be really bad for Argyle Street. It’ll be bad for the view from Citadel Hill. It’s going to be unpleasant to be on the outside in terms of wind, the shadow is something I also have in mind for Argyle Street---I think in fact it’s going to ruin business on Argyle Street.”

Epstein would rather see development of four- to six-storey buildings throughout downtown, and worries that a project on the scale of the convention centre would destroy the market for further development downtown. He is also critical of Trade Centre Limited, the provincial crown corporation that operates the existing convention centre and which has been lobbying for the new, larger convention centre now being debated.

“I think the Trade Centre Limited has played kind of a scandalous role here,” says Epstein. “They’ve put out documents that pretend to be serious studies of what the market potential is for a larger convention centre, but their studies have built into them such dubious assumptions and blue-sky optimistic assumptions. They have no credibility with me, and I hope they have no credibility with my colleagues.”

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