Rethinking the Halifax convention centre: What if it didn't go ahead?

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I'm anxious to stop bleeding electronic ink on the subject, but it looks as though the convention centre saga is far from over and will be keeping the opinion mills running for some time. The province supports it, but that's far from a clincher. The city could have trouble swallowing its third of the $160-million bill and the federal third seems to me particularly iffy.

We've been talking as though the federal share is a foregone conclusion, but in fact Ottawa has still to be asked to cough up a $47-million lump sum when the project is finished, and it's not the kind of outfit that coughs up just like that.

I'd say it's still 50-50, maybe less, as to whether it's a go, and we should perhaps be thinking: What if it isn't? Would its demise hover as a forlorn symbol of civic demoralization for those who so desperately want it, envenoming the civic mood even more, or could we somehow rally for another kick at the can?

Let's just say that another kick at the can would give a chance to repair the process that makes this convention centre so problematic on several fronts: economic, architectural, political.

Developers have proposed a Cadillac project to be paid for at public expense to go with their private project. There are studies and projections to show how this would pay for itself, create jobs, bring tax revenue and so on.

Another look would acknowledge that this is the standard process that has repeated itself in dozens of North American cities over the past 15 years and that hasn't worked. The projections were mostly wrong, downtowns haven't been revitalized and conventioneers keep dwindling, leading to loss of revenue, price slashing and a general race to the bottom. With the experts warning of new oil price shocks as demand exceeds supply within a few years, probably affecting travel and hindering economic recovery, a new and grimmer reality is clearly afoot.

A more sober approach would, first of all, calculate what we want and need. Let's assume, for example, that we do want a new convention centre, one that can in fact handle national and international gatherings. The assumption would have to be that these might be few and far between, that the facility would have other uses in between, and that it would have to pay for itself on that basis.

Having some basic assumptions, we could then engage some architectural imagination to flesh it out. The present project (only the hotel and office tower would be visible; the convention centre would be underground) would likely raise less animosity if it somehow expressed the city, touched the public's fancy and was less hostile to the pedestrian.

Although a convention centre is unlikely to be the entire iconic standard-bearer for a city, doing for example what the CN Tower does for Toronto, it can add to its personality if done judiciously.

And ultimately there's the larger question of looking for some sort of common ground on civic matters in the Halifax Regional Municipality, which the city desperately needs and without which it cannot move ahead without rancour. We have two sides bitterly entrenched going back to the late 1960s when a project to build a highway along the harbour's edge downtown was blocked. Since then, developers have been under suspicion, not helped by the misleading campaign to land the Commonwealth Games of a couple of years ago, and it's been one thing after another erupting into a catfight.

Does this have to go on forever? Could there be an attempt at a meeting of minds before a project has been conceptually set in stone and presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition? Could the provincial government not take a guiding hand in this instead of giving the impression that it's wheeling and dealing in secret with developers?

As has been pointed out, a new library building for Halifax has been going through a broadly acceptable process and looks like it's heading for a broadly acceptable result. With regard to this convention centre project, our chances of attaining a broadly acceptable result may be better if it doesn't go ahead than if it does.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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