Halifax isn’t Orlando

The Commonwealth Games, concerts and convention centre fiascos all arise from an unrealistic tourism agenda.

As expected, city auditor general Larry Munroe's report on the concerts scandal contained explosive new details and directly implicated mayor Peter Kelly, former chief bureaucrat Wayne Anstey, Trade Centre Limited president Scott Ferguson and his predecessor, Fred MacGillivray. Munroe explains how these four men abused their positions and improperly funnelled $5.6 million of taxpayer money to concert promoter Harold MacKay. (See thecoast.ca/GigTrouble for coverage.)

Further investigation of the concerts scandal is welcome, but there's also an elephant in the room we should talk about: the line from the Commonwealth Games fiasco to the Common concerts fiasco to the proposed convention centre fiasco.

See, starting in the 1980s, the staid old government service of tourism development went into cancerous overdrive, as Fred MacGillivray used TCL in an attempt to turn Halifax into a sort of Orlando North, with millions of tourists visiting us every year, making at least some locals rich.

It was then that Harold MacKay, as marketing manager of Moosehead Brewery, started the Mooseheads hockey team. The team was essentially a loss leader for Moosehead---the brewery didn't mind paying a high rent for the TCL-managed Metro Centre, because it had exclusive rights to beer sales at the games plus got the advertising benefit of a hockey team.

The Mooseheads deal can be seen as a precursor to other deals MacKay and MacGillivray would go on to make, since its business model required special circumstances---like a beer company with other reasons to pay the Metro Centre's rent---to work. After Bobby Smith bought the Mooseheads, in 2004 he threatened to move the team to the Forum unless MacGillivray lowered the rent. MacGillivray backed down.

MacGillivray's Orlando North obsession went into hyperdrive last decade, when he spearheaded the Commonwealth Games initiative. He and about a dozen other insiders locked themselves behind closed doors and blew $9.5 million of taxpayers' money chasing the bid, flying around the world and bestowing "gifts" (don't call them "bribes"!) upon Commonwealth Games Association officials in nation after nation. Ultimately, then-premier Rodney MacDonald shut the effort down as it was cascading into a mammoth spending scandal.

The Commonwealth Games fiasco is indicative of the Orlando North mindset. In service of the fantasy, absolutely no expense was unwarranted and no price tag was too expensive. MacGillivray and company had sold the Games as a "right-sized" $600 million project, and then proceeded to draw up plans for Games that would cost at least $2 billion. Anyone who objected to the price tag was derided as anti-progress, and a slew of bogus economic impact arguments were trotted out to justify the huge expense.

The concerts on the Common started in 2006, just as MacGillivray was gearing up for the Commonwealth Games bid. The day of The Rolling Stones' show, MacGillivray was telling city councillors that the (alleged) success of the show proved Halifax was capable of hosting the Commonwealth Games.

But Munroe's report reveals something else happened in 2006: MacGillivray, with no authorization to do so, took the Metro Box Office ticket sales agency away from the city and placed it under the TCL banner. MacGillivray told neither the TCL board nor city hall about the move, which has probably cost the city millions of dollars. The $5.6 million in improper loans to MacKay were subsequently made through the very bank account left over from that bit of bureaucratic theft.

Both the Commonwealth Games bid and the Common concerts were the product of the MacGillivray-led TCL, an out-of-control bureaucracy making its own rules, accountable to no one.

And let's not forget the proposed new convention centre, another TCL project, and in many ways also MacGillivray's baby. Again, no expense is too much, no inventive bookkeeping is questionable, bullshit economic impact projections are pulled out of thin air and anyone who questions the project is derided as anti-progress.

Look, tourism is important. We should pursue it with reasonable aggressiveness. But let's be clear: Halifax is not, and never will be, Orlando. We're an interesting place, with a quirky culture that has appeal, but we've got shitty weather for three-quarters of the year. No one's interested in setting up Disney World here, and we can't afford to do it ourselves. To believe otherwise is just dreaming in Technicolor.

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