We need to talk: Proposed Halifax convention centre could cost $100 million

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WHOA. About this proposed convention centre in downtown Halifax that could cost $100 million in taxpayer dollars (more, if experience elsewhere serves): We need to talk, fast.

We've chowed down on the promises of convention centre promoters and ignored a powerful set of facts that paint a bleak picture of the convention business, making success in Halifax a long shot indeed.

Here's some sobering stuff. It's a report by the prestigious Brookings Institution in the U.S. It says that after a peak in the early 1990s, the convention business has been declining steadily while cities fall over each other building new, mostly publicly subsidized, money-losing convention facilities. Investment doubled over a decade, while business dropped, in many places by as much as 50 per cent, a conclusion "that should give local leaders pause as they call for ever more public investment in the convention business."

That report was in 2005. I called the author, Heywood Sanders, a professor of urban planning at the University of Texas who specializes in building projects as civic investments, to ask what has happened since. "Worse, much worse, since the recession," he said, as he was putting the finishing touches on a book he's writing on the subject.

Furthermore, he said, the promises of promoters, and the hopes of civic leaders to revitalize their downtowns with convention centres, have mostly proven wrong.

He offered the example of Boston as typical. It did a major expansion several years ago on the expectation of 800,000 hotel-room nights over a given period. It's been half that. Otherwise, the plight of the world-leading Las Vegas convention centre is indicative, with the number of conventioneers having dropped from 1.6 million in '08 to 1.1 million in '09.

Centre managers everywhere are into giveaways and cut rates to stay afloat, as businesses cut costs and either downsize or replace conventions with interactive communications, likely a trend that will continue into any economic recovery.

His report covered the U.S. Since then he's taken a keen interest in Canada, where the same thing is going on, with new centres being pursued along the same logic not only in Halifax but in Moncton, Ottawa, Niagara Falls, Winnipeg and Saint John. Meanwhile, the one in Vancouver is complete -- at double the projected cost in taxpayer money, clocking in at nearly $800 million in public funds.

What civic leaders in Halifax need to ask, says Sanders, is: "What is the case that leads one to believe that Halifax will succeed where others haven't?" I mentioned the usual argument that Halifax is a more hassle-free destination for international, mainly U.S., business. "OK, but then what's the argument that says they won't go to Ottawa, Niagara Falls, etc., instead, for the same reasons?"

Meanwhile, a study at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 ripped into the unreliability of the feasibility studies used to justify these convention centres, and that are usually wrong (and when things go wrong, more feasibility studies are done by the same people to "fix" the problem), he said, adding that one thing always missing from the argument is any look at alternatives.

The coalition fighting the Halifax project in its present form have some other arguments -- at up to 18 floors, it will block part of the view planes to Halifax Harbour; the need for the extra office space going with it is questionable; and there's the murkiness of the P3 process with its known hazards to the public purse.

This last is a key point. The whole thing is top secret, although the go-ahead is said to be imminent. The present government has picked this up from the previous one, apparently without questioning its assumptions.

But if $100 million or more is going into this in such unpromising economic conditions, nothing is more urgent than to question it. Indeed, I'm reminded of the struggle over bringing the Commonwealth Games to Halifax back in 2007 -- it took a pitched battle against determinedly secretive promoters to finally wring out the staggering fact that the "$200 million" Games would cost closer to $2 billion.

The minister in charge is Bill Estabrooks. Bill, you are the NDP. Act like it. Lift the veil on this thing and let it be ventilated properly in the light of day. If not, what I propose is a good public uproar.

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