Crunch time for Halifax convention centre

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The proposal for a new convention centre complex in downtown Halifax has been delivered, and government is chewing over the implications. Infrastructure Minister Bill Estabrooks has said that by the fall a decision will be made whether something will be built -- if so, what, and if not, what the next step will be.

In deciding, the government will also take into account the interests of "all Nova Scotians," Estabrooks said, considering that a public investment possibly north of $140 million will be required.

The interests of all Nova Scotians adds a certain dimension to the argument as the decision-making process percolates. Halifax -- Halifax Regional Municipality -- is to Nova Scotia as Toronto is to Ontario, hugely dominant in every way, with half the provincial population within its sphere. The vast majority of us go there sometime -- even if it's by ambulance. Having it work properly is in everybody's interest.

Assuming we have $150 million to spend on the metropolis, what would be "all Nova Scotians'" first choice? I doubt that a new convention centre would rank very high, even if the general economics of convention centres in North America weren't in fact spectacularly bleak.

If the question was properly put, what would rank first, I suspect, would be a light rail system. Even the beginnings of one would cast Halifax into a higher category as a functioning city -- not to mention being beneficial on the energy front and putting an end to those continuous battles over street-widenings to accommodate more cars so draining to the civic spirit. As it is, downtown Halifax is a place as much to be avoided as anything because getting there and getting around is so awkward.

Although hugely dominant in Nova Scotia, in one essential dysfunction Halifax resembles more the small towns of Nova Scotia than the chain of larger Canadian cities to which it logically belongs. Take, typically, Yarmouth, near where I live. In its commercial life, it has become essentially a mall with a hollowed-out downtown attached. In Halifax it's a dozen malls, but the principle is roughly the same. Except that in cities the size of Halifax, that can be addressed with an effective public transportation system. As soon as getting downtown becomes easy and hassle-free, people follow and so does investment in the downtown, as well as along the rail or subway line.

Are we anywhere near even thinking about this, except in the occasional abortive spate and amid the near-comical antics of HRM municipal council? Should a larger urban vision under provincial initiative be on the government's mind as it contemplates putting big money into a convention centre? I would think so. Justifying this huge public investment to the rest of the province will require more than the tortured figures the proponents of the project have come up with so far.

There was another unconvincing study this week purporting to show the positive economics of the convention centre -- a tax bonanza of $170 million over 10 years, essentially repaying the public investment. Critics say the projected visitor figures to get to that conclusion are grossly over-optimistic. The steady decline of convention business North America-wide since the early 1990s, through boom and bust alike, indicates that it's on the downside of larger socio-economic changes, and not likely to flourish even if the economy does.

The emotional part of this argument is aesthetic in nature. For proponents, leaving that empty lot in the heart of downtown is just one civic embarrassment too many, while others have found their calling in protecting the views of the harbour from Citadel Hill. For the opponents, there's also the attachment to the human scale of the area as it exists, with the first round of plans denounced as forbidding concrete with nothing for the pedestrian.

The bigger challenge here is to come up with something broadly acceptable that would boost the civic life-force and go some way to reducing the endless battles over development in downtown Halifax. The first burden of proof is with the developer, Rank Inc. Has it come up with something that does in fact respect the pedestrian character of downtown, doesn't make unrealistic assumptions about the economics of convention centres, and requires less -- or at least more profitable -- public investment? I would think those are the points the minister would be insisting on as he assesses the project, meanwhile keeping an eye on the civic future and what the rest of the province will say about spending all that money downtown in times of high austerity.

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