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Bang for your buck

This weekend’s concert will turn the publicly owned Halifax Common into a for-profit venue for the very first time. Tim Bousquet gets the private details.

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This week, for the first time in its 257-year history, the North Halifax Common is being handed over for the exclusive use of a private corporation—Montreal’s Donald K. Donald Productions, the firm producing and profiting from Saturday’s Rolling Stones concert.

So unless they can pony up the $116 entrance fee to the concert, the usual collection of walkers, joggers, ball-players, skateboarders, dog walkers and fountain watchers must find some other place to enjoy their pursuits.

“The Common is public space,” explains Sheila Fougere, one of just four city councillors to vote against using the Common for the Stones concert. “This is the first time that a for-profit event closed to the public has been held on our premier public space. And the public never got a chance to comment on that.”

But officials insist that the shutdown is temporary and well worth it—the eight-foot tall black fence separating the public from its land will come down soon after Saturday night’s concert and, they say, the Common will quickly be restored to its pre-concert condition. Moreover, after the Stones leave town, an estimated $10- to $15-million will be left circulating in the local economy.

“Technically, this does change the definition of the Common,” admits Scott Ferguson of Events Halifax, the government-funded tourism promotion agency responsible for landing the Stones deal. “But it’s for a very short period—a week, or one weekend for most of the Common. If it’s worth $10-million, you do it.”

Ferguson says Events Halifax began recruiting the Stones about a year ago, but the issue wasn’t brought to city council until the second week of August.

“I thought our ducks weren’t in a row, and this was an awful short time to approve this,” says Fougere, explaining her “no” vote.

Over the past six weeks, most of the council’s decision-making concerning the concert was made in secret. Both the decision to turn the Common over to DKD and the decision to allocate $100,000 in public funds for the concert were made behind closed doors.

There has yet to be a public accounting for how the money will be spent, and there is no public budget for the expenditure.

“It’s going to offset city expenses for the concert,” is the best Brad Anguish, the city’s point man for the concert, can explain it.

Certainly, public expenses will mount. The city will run special shuttle buses and extra ferries all day Saturday, an additional 100 police officers will be placed on duty Saturday night in and around the concert, and afterwards, city workers will be left to handle the mess in the blocks surrounding the Common.

Anguish says DKD is responsible for the clean-up and restoration of the Common itself. But according to Fougere, as recently as last week—after at least 30,000 Stones tickets had already been sold—there was still no signed contract between DKD, Events Halifax and the city.

Anguish says it doesn’t matter. “We’ve had agreement with Events Halifax for a while, but really, the signing of a contract is just a formality. We’ve told Events Halifax what we want, and they’re going to provide it.”

But he won’t disclose the contents of the contract. “Contractual matters are confidential,” he says.

All of which begs the question: Who else can get exclusive use of the Common, and will the city use taxpayer money to pay for it? Could a Halifax hip-hop band fence off the Common and charge admission to get in?

“If the council lets them,” answers Anguish. “People can make an application, and council considers it.”

That process rankles Fougere. “There are no guidelines for this, no policy,” she says. “Heck, I like the Rolling Stones as much as the next guy, but this is completely arbitrary.”

Whatever the process, Events Halifax intends to repeat it.

“Our goal is to establish Halifax as the country’s top events centre,” says Ferguson. “If we want to grow, we need an outdoor venue to put on these kinds of events.”

Events Halifax already is working with DKD and others to bring “several major attractions” to the Common next year, he says.

But should the public have a say in the use of the Common?

“Aldermen and councillors are hired to do a job,” he says. “They decide.”

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