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Benefits of $500 million convention centre still unclear

Students say project will take away funding for education

Laura Conrad, News Editor


Nova Scotians have been raising a lot of concern over the decision to build new convention centre in downtown Halifax. Now, students are getting involved: raising the question of whether or not the provincial government will wind up cutting funding from the public sector—particularly education—to put it towards a convention centre.

The full project, consisting of hotel, office tower, retails and residential space, will cost approximately $500 million. The province proposed a cost-sharing agreement between the three levels of government to fund the $159 million convention centre. If the cost negotiations are successful, private financing will provide millions more.

According to Gabe Hoogers, the Canadian Federation of Students’ representative for Nova Scotia, the idea of the convention centre project already takes away from students.

“It’s clear the Dexter government hasn’t made education a priority if they have $159 million for a convention centre,” he says. “Students are being pushed aside for a commercial building that will have dubious economic returns.”

There are a number of economic concerns surrounding the convention centre project. On Nov. 8, convention centre and urban development expert Heywood Sanders gave a public presentation on some of these issues. Sanders says many cities have implemented similar projects, and saw no economic benefits.

Sanders says the only way the convention centre will have a real impact on the economy is if it attracts people from out-of-town, to the city. His concern is that there is no way to measure the probability of this happening.

“Competitive reality should raise some serious questions—can you simply assume the convention centre will double your business? One thing we do know—meeting planners don’t book buildings before they’re completed.”

Saunders holds a PhD in government from Harvard University and is currently a professor of public administration at the University of Texas. In his research, he has examined the urban politics surrounding convention centre projects across North America.

“The same strategy has been applied to other North American cities – build it, and we’ll trust (that people) will come,” he said during a press conference. “I don’t know that we can trust that. It’s equally plausible that…you build it, and they just don’t come. If people aren’t coming, then there’s no economic impact.”

Hoogers is frustrated with the fact that the government would look to a convention centre for long-term economic benefits, when the benefits of investing in education are clear.

“There is already an economic stimulus for investing in education. Universities generate millions for the economy. People come to live here for four years at a time, and many decide to stay.”

Hoogers says the proposal has surfaced around the same time as serious concerns about student debt and high tuition fees.

“A lot of the numbers speak for themselves,” he says of the convention centre costs compared with funding for education. “The provincial government spends approximately $350 million annually on education. Nova Scotia currently has the highest level of student debt, and the third highest tuition fees in the country. It’s clear from what we’ve been told by the government that those numbers will be rising.”

Phil Pacey is the chair of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia. According to Pacey, it’s likely that annual funding for the convention centre will wind up coming from the public sector.

“This will not generate enough provincial tax revenue (to cover annual costs),” he says. “Super-inflated attendance estimates are driving the whole discussion. The money is going to have to come from somewhere. Either taxes will be increased, or else services will be cut back. It’s a really misplaced set of priorities.”

Pacey is a member of  Save the View, a citizen coalition that opposes the convention centre project. The Save the View Coalition says the new 18-storey convention centre building will block the view of the Halifax Harbour and George’s Island from Citadel Hill, where 800,000 people visit every year. According  to the Save the View Coalition website, “The city needs to ensure that it can afford to pay for core government services, not bankrupt the public on a mega-project that will harm Halifax’s assets.”

According to Trade Centre Limited (TCL), there are a number of possible benefits to the convention centre project. Suzanne Fougere,  manager of corporate communications, says the project wil give Halifax a more competitive edge.

“A new convention centre with flexible space is critical to our ability to compete successfully,” she says. “The new infrastructure will allow us to attract new businesses to the province, create jobs, economic benefits and community opportunities.” Fougere says TCL has two major goals in mind with the convention centre project.

“There are two major areas that we’re looking at,” she says. “Growing the number of national events that we can host, as well as increasing our share of international business.”

In response to Sanders’ presentation, Fougere says a lot of his recommendations are non-applicable to the Halifax project.

“Sanders is a well-known expert, but most of the research he references  is not applicable to the Canadian market,” she says. “He refers a lot to larger trade shows in the United States. That’s a segment of the market that we do not compete for.”

The new convention centre project is currently still under negotiation in many ways. At press time, the province is currently waiting on the approval of the federal government and their response to the funding agreement.


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