Great glass hope could be white elephant | the Herald

Better said than most, certainly sums up what I have been thinking, I turn this space over to Laura Penny and her article from the Herald.

I LIVE ON Argyle Street, between two of Halifax’s most talked-about vacant lots. The new central library and the proposed convention centre may be a few short blocks away from one another, but they represent very different ideas about the role of government.

The library serves hundreds of thousands of HRM residents, and has been doing so from a cramped old building for quite some time. Critics of the new library, including some of the commentariat on this newpaper’s website, have been quick to cry government waste. Fifty-five million?!? You can get books on the Internet if you want to waste your time — ew! — reading.

Never mind that many people need the library to use the Internet. The bigger point critics are making is that the government should not be providing public services or spaces. And to think I thought that was their job!

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the government’s role is to provide the public infrastructure — libraries, schools, roads, cops — that frees us to do things like start businesses or create jobs. However, some want to cut out that pesky public step, and just hand our money to private concerns. That’s a lot more proactive than waiting for them to fail and then bailing them out.

How can Nova Scotians possibly pass up another golden opportunity to spend money it does not have subsidizing the private sector? It’s Bluenose tradition to hand a bag of tax moolah to any business lobby that repeats the magic J-word. Surely we all recall how benevolent agencies like ACOA, in concert with unimpeachable business concerns, turned Cape Breton into a fully employed, prosperous utopia.

The WTCC proposal is not just an example of politics as usual, but a reflection of our business practices. A pal once told me a story about his dad, who teaches at one of the local business schools. On the first day of his entrepreneurship class, he asked his students what they would do first if they wanted to launch a new business. Their answer? “Apply for government grants!”

This is not to say that the WTCC boosters are risk-averse pseudo-preneurs. Perish the thought! Rather, they think investing is so awesome that they want to make sure every Nova Scotian, young and old, rich and poor, enjoys the rush.

According to their latest numbers, released last week, if we build it, and they come, we will reap $170 million in tax revenues. If we stick with the like, totally lame and embarrassing facilities we already have, we’ll make a measly $79 million.

These guesstimates allowed me to perform the following calculation: $170 million, minus the $100 million figure everyone keeps bandying about, equals $70 million. Which is $9 million less than $79 million.

Doubtless one of the consultants or flacks involved will rush to correct my rube math — subtraction is sooo old economy — and paint me as the enemy of progress. But what really depresses me about the convention centre is that this is what passes for progress in the HRM: a great glassy hope that may well turn out to be a costly white elephant.

Many experts argue that the convention market has been in steady decline since the late ‘90s. Moreover, it is likely this decline will continue for technological reasons. As more and more digitally literate people move into management, pricey meatspace schmoozefests will be replaced by cheaper virtual meetings.

Moreover, the WTCC boosters must attend much more leisurely, life-transforming conferences than yours truly. Every conference I have attended has consisted of three to four very busy days of meetings. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you make it to the TGIFriday’s next to the hotel. I think it’s unlikely that conference-goers will relocate their families and businesses based on such short stays. I think it’s doubly unlikely that they will do so based on their view of the abandoned Dooley’s on Barrington.

Downtown Halifax needs more empty commercial space like the harbour needs more poop. Ill-paid service gigs will not stanch our brain drain or foster greater economic autonomy. A truly innovative development strategy would encourage Nova Scotians to make something more enduring than warm welcomes and cocktails. The “new” convention centre is just a splashy version of something older than your Grandma: the parlour that is reserved for Christmas and company.

Downtown Halifax needs more empty commercial space like the harbour needs more poop.

Laura Penny is the author of More Money Than Brains and Your Call is Important to Us. She is a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.