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Howard Epstein, upfront about the centre

The MLA talks about opposing the proposed downtown convention centre, and why he's thinking about leaving the NDP.

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Halifax Chebucto MLA Howard Epstein doesn't like the proposal for a downtown Halifax convention centre. And while his NDP colleagues are cagey and non-committal on the issue, Epstein is forthright and public about his opposition, spelling out not only his reasons but also providing details of the project that had never been released before.

Moreover, while the convention centre wouldn't be the deciding factor, Epstein acknowledges that it is one of a constellation of issues that is causing him to rethink his relationship with the NDP, and that he is considering leaving the party and sitting as an independent in the legislature.

• • •

The convention centre complex would sit on the two blocks bound by Argyle, Prince, Market and Sackville Streets. It would be constructed by development firm Rank Inc., which would also own and operate a hotel and office space contained in two towers, 18 and 14 storeys respectively, attached to the centre. After construction, the convention centre portion of the project, which would stretch beneath the buildings in a basement opening out to Argyle Street, would be operated by Trade Centre Limited, a provincial crown corporation.

The proposal now being debated at cabinet would have the public pay about $160 million for the convention centre, says Epstein. Of that, $57 million would come from the province, $57 million from Halifax Regional Municipality and the balance, about $46 million, from the federal government.

"It's too rich for our blood; it's too expensive," says Epstein. "I don't think the province can afford to add $57 million to our debt. I don't think HRM taxpayers want to add $57 million to HRM's debt and put upwardly pressure on property taxes---so it's way too expensive."

The expected $57 million contribution from the city comes as news to Halifax councillors.

"That's a lot of money," says councillor Jerry Blumenthal, who has been supportive of the convention centre proposal. "That's going to require a lot of thinking. Where do we get it? I'm hesitating; I care very much about my residents, and I don't want their taxes going up. I'm going to have to see it on paper, how we're going to pay for it."

"If we were $30 million in the hole last year, and we had to make all the cuts we did, what do you think $57 million will do?" asks councillor Dawn Sloane. "If it looks like it's too rich for our blood, then I'll have to pass. And I'm one who thinks we need a new convention centre. But we need a lot of things. We need a stadium, or a partnership with a university on a stadium, we need a cultural arts centre, we need an aquarium on the waterfront. But if we don't get tax reform, where the suburbs are paying their full share, then this will bankrupt the downtown."

The city has recently embarked on two large capital projects---the $35 million central library downtown and the $41 million four-pad arena in Bedford---that have stretched HRM's debt policies. During a recent budget update given to council, finance director Cathie O'Toole warned that incurring additional debt might affect the city's credit rating, leading to increased costs for borrowing.

• • •

Epstein's objections to the convention centre range from financial to philosophical to aesthetic.

"I've always been clear that I'm very much in favour of development in downtown Halifax---it certainly needs it---but not this development," says Epstein. "The buildings are way too tall. I think the height and the design will be really bad for Argyle Street. It'll be bad for the view from Citadel Hill. It's going to be unpleasant to be on the outside in terms of wind, the shadow is something I also have in mind for Argyle Street---I think in fact it's going to ruin business on Argyle Street."

Epstein would rather see development of four- to six-storey buildings throughout downtown, and worries that a project on the scale of the convention centre would destroy the market for further development downtown.

"It'll suck up business," he says. "This happened three times. It happened with Scotia Square, which sucked up all the business for awhile, and then it happened with what is now known as the Aliant building and then it happened with Purdy's Wharf. Every time there was a large building built, it took up all the potential development elsewhere.

"It's just not plausible to me that there's going to be enough demand for this," he continues. "It may be that the first of the developers in this stage---that build a building---may get some tenants, but it'll ruin it for everybody else. I would rather see the downtown as a whole get developed, which means at a lower scale, smaller scale."

The public-private partnership management structure of the proposal also weighs heavily in Epstein's thinking.

"We know that P3s have been very expensive in Nova Scotia, and there's no clear reason why we should go for a P3," says Epstein. "The essence of a P3 is we'll pay for someone else to own something, and then we'll rent it from them. I don't think so. This is something the Liberals latched on to as a way to avoid adding onto the operating deficit of the province, but what they did of course is they added to the debt of the province and to the ongoing rental. It just makes no sense for buildings---if we need them, and they're to be owned by the public, then we should build them and own them ourselves, not build them for someone else then rent them back.

The public "P" in the convention centre proposal is Trade Centre Limited, which originated the proposal and has been lobbying heavily for it.

"I think the Trade Centre Limited has played kind of a scandalous role here," says Epstein. "They've put out documents that pretend to be serious studies of what the market potential is for a larger convention centre, but their studies have built into them such dubious assumptions and blue-sky optimistic assumptions. They have no credibility with me, and I hope they have no credibility with my colleagues."

• • •

Epstein has been active in NDP politics for three decades, first winning the Halifax Chebucto seat in 1998, after four years as a city councillor. He is widely regarded as intelligent, dedicated and as a crucial part of the party's electoral success. But, since Darrell Dexter formed the first NDP government last year, Epstein has been increasingly marginalized.

As a former executive director of the Ecology Action Centre, Epstein was the logical choice for minister of the environment, but Dexter did not make that appointment and, adding insult to injury, locked Epstein out of cabinet altogether. Earlier this year, Epstein was further alienated from his party when the government relaxed mercury standards that had been written into the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act.

Now, as the convention centre issue takes centre stage in internal NDP debates, rumours have been flying in political circles that Epstein is mulling over leaving the party completely. Asked directly of that possibility, he doesn't deny it.

"I have been talking very frankly with my colleagues, urging them not to put any money into the convention centre," says Epstein. "If the decision goes against the view that I have, then I'll certainly think about what to do, but a very serious decision like leaving [the caucus] would only be taken in the context of much wider considerations. It wouldn't be a one-issue matter. If I were to ask myself that question, it would be based on multiple factors.

"I would have to decide where best to place my efforts. I mean, I've been a member of the NDP for a long time, 30 years, I've won five elections provincially, people vote for me because I work hard on issues they think are important, and I would have to assess, I guess, how progressive and hopeful our new government is, or is likely to be.

"So it wouldn't be a one-issue matter. When I ask myself, as people do, 'What are you going to do next?' or 'What's your future like?' then they ask that as a complex question, not as a simple question.

"People have been very good to me," he continues. "But there's a reason I get elected; I get elected because people can look to my public record over the years---as a lawyer in private practice, as someone who does pro bono work, as the executive director of the Ecology Action Centre, as a former city councillor. I mean, we know each other."

Infrastructure minister Bill Estabrooks appeared to be ready to announce provincial support for the convention centre this week, but Dexter has said that it needs more discussion before an announcement is made. Is Dexter slowing the process for fear Epstein will leave the party?

"It beats me," answers Epstein. "I don't know what the cabinet discussion has been. This has been actively debated, believe me---there are strongly held opinions, and people are looking at this in a lot of detail, and are generally not shy about saying what they think. This is not an easy decision."

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