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Suburban monsters 

While downtown businesses shill for a convention centre, they ignore much larger threats to their livelihood.

It's only July and already summer seems a little hotter, a little muggier, a little longer than usual. There's a sense of impending doom hanging in the air, as if just around the next corner is a catalogue of cataclysm: disastrous changes in climate, resource depletion and wars, a breakdown in the social order.

Americans now worry of a double dip recession starting in the fall, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman fully expects a 30-year depression, worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s that has become the standard of measurement. For the last couple of years we've referred to the current recession as the worst "since the Great Depression"; if Krugman's right, we'll have to re-label these coming decades as the "Greatest Depression Ever!"

Closer to home, ExxonMobile's decision to give up its Nova Scotia offshore operations (see page 4) takes a bankrupt provincial government and throws it in the inescapable dungeon of a debtor's prison. We've been a have-not province; we're now a never-will-have province.

The rational response to all this would be panic, followed by a rushed triage, throwing the few resources we have at strategies that might be of some use in extended hard times: developing local renewable energy and food systems, strengthening the social safety net. But as we're not a rational society, we pretend nothing's happening. Half the public service is on vacation, "out of office" automated email responses overloading the government servers.

And so the biggest controversy of the summer is not Oh my fucking god! Do we build more windmills or use the money instead to build a train line out to the valley agriculture land? but rather: Do we dump $100 million, or $170 million, or $100GodKnowsWhat into a downtown convention centre?

The debate continues apace, with both sides kicking the can down the road a piece. Pro-convention centre business cases are trotted out by supporters, than taken apart by detractors. Opinion polls are read one way by one side, another way by the other. Historic preservationists are derided by Chronicle-Herald editor Dan Leger as a "band of unelected, unaccountable activists determined to impose their vision on the capital city," while the unelected, unaccountable backslappers and bullshitters cluttering up the corporate offices of Trade Centre Limited who are likewise determined to impose their vision on the capital city, and who are more than a little self-interested financially besides, are held to a different standard. But never mind that; downtown business people need help, dammit, so they demand a convention centre.

Which is all well and good, except downtown business people's priorities are all wrong. In a collapsed economy, the struggle won't be getting people from Houston or Vancouver to come to downtown Halifax---Houstonians and Vancouverites will be staying home, dodging the repo man and tending their Defeat Gardens. Rather, the struggle will be to get people from Bedford and Cole Harbour to come to downtown Halifax.

This spring, Halifax council voted 22 to one to expand both the Burnside and Bayers Lake business parks, providing government-subsidized and cheap office space alternatives to downtown. Downtown businesses didn't say a word. Only Dawn Sloane noted the effect on downtown, for which she was quickly ignored.

Similarly, the only public body doing anything this summer is the Regional Plan Advisory Committee, which seems determined to recommend that the proposed Birch Cove Lakes-Blue Mountain Wilderness Park instead be clear-cut, filled in and paved over with suburban sprawl.

If built, the thousands of houses in the new 'burbs will pull the rug out from the nascent boom in downtown residential development, doing more to hurt downtown businesses than even the wildest fantasies of four decades' worth of history buffs. To their credit, the presidents of both the Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street business associations have been showing up at the committee's meetings to watch their jobs be undermined by public policy, but otherwise, so far as I know, not a single downtown business owner has uttered a word about the plan to put the suburbs on steroids.

From Wall Street to Barrington Street, the world is changing in frightening ways, and yet Haligonians are whistling into the wind, betting their financial future on valet parking, concierges and PowerPoint presentations in a basement meeting hall.

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