Last week, I broke the news that the provincial government spent $600,000 on last year's Paul McCartney concert on the Halifax Common. Adding in HRM's contribution, some $750,000 in taxpayer money was spent on the event.
The primary issue for me is one of secrecy---taxpayers can't decide if such expenditures are appropriate if they don't know about them---but with $750,000 for McCartney and a potential $100 million for a new convention centre, I've been thinking a lot lately about the economic arguments behind these expenditures. Both the concert and the convention centre are projects of Trade Centre Limited, the crown corporation charged with hosting major events in Halifax, and as TCL has been the brunt of much of my criticism, I only thought it fair to hear them out when they suggested I interview two people with more favourable economic views of the productions.
One interview was with Grant MacDonald, TCL's director of Major Events and Community Partnerships. He told me what he could about how TCL calculates "direct expenditures" related to concerts---money spent locally by concert-goers and the promoter, supposedly $8 million in the McCartney show's case. MacDonald didn't really disagree with me when I argued that that figure misses all sorts of things, like money not spent elsewhere because of the concert (see a more in-depth discussion of those issues at thecoast.ca/bites).
As for secrecy issues, MacDonald correctly said revealing government expenditures is the duty of government, not TCL. I'll call it a draw.
My other interview was with Michael Hughes, who works for the American publication Tradeshow Week and was in town for, I'm not making this up, National Meetings Industry Day. Obviously, he supports building a convention centre.
After we agreed that government expenditures, and the consultant reports spelling out the need for them, should be public my conversation with Hughes went downhill. (TCL refuses to release four consultant reports studying the proposed convention centre. Tuesday, infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks announced he agrees with me, and will release at least one of the reports.)
Hughes' basic line is that the convention industry reflects the overall economy---economy goes up, there are more conventions; economy goes down, fewer conventions. Now that the recent recession is over, he said, the economy is going to grow, so the convention centre business will boom.
Well, I asked, did you predict the recent global financial collapse? Nope. Then why should I trust your predictions now? Silence. Then I moved on: What if oil goes up to $250?
"That's not going to happen," he said. "I simply don't believe that." Huh. So, some people say this convention business is horribly environmentally, because gazillions of people are flying all over the planet to attend these things. What do you say to that? He literally laughed in my face. "The convention business is a green industry," he said.
The premise of both bringing big concerts to the Common and of building a convention centre is that our local economy will boom because people from other places will come here, dropping tons of money.
But, seems to me, there's no long-term understanding of the problems we are about to face: peak oil and global warming. Economist Jeff Rubin is now predicting $250/barrel oil in the next few years, and Obama is talking seriously about a carbon tax---the low figures being bandied about at this time are in the $20/tonne area, but even local policy makers speak of $100/tonne and Don Weaver of the IPCC wants a $200/tonne tax. What this means is the cost per delegate of a convention in Halifax would rise by something like $1,500, just for travel costs. That means far fewer conventioneers coming to town.
Rather than spending all this taxpayer dough on the desperate and ridiculous idea that people from other places will provide our economic sustenance, we should instead be gearing up for a local economy, building local sources of renewable energy, mass transit systems that don't rely on imported oil and don't pollute greenhouse gas, local food networks and so forth.
It'd be a shame to tell the next generation we didn't prepare for them because we spent all our money chasing the delusion that other people will provide for us.