HALIFAX – Simplified, the debate over the convention centre boils down to this: On the one hand, proponents believe that the convention centre will transform Halifax into a vibrant, prosperous, and dynamic economy. On the other, opponents argue that the proposed price tag of $300 million — split three ways between the municipal, provincial, and federal governments — is arguably more money than our tenuous economy can or should support, and the payback on convention centres is not nearly what is trumpeted.
However petty, partisan, and personal the debates waged within the comments sections of online news can become, a March 24 Chronicle Herald piece inspired a commendably thought-provoking debate (sadly the link is now defunct and you will have to take my word for it).
Quite pertinently, one commenter asks, “One may be willing to fly from Calgary to Halifax for a convention when the fare is $1000 (all costs in) but what about when this fare reaches $3000 or $5000?”
This question demands far deeper consideration than we have seen thus far: to what extent does the financial influx promised by the convention centre rely on cheap oil and cost-free carbon?
Unlike a public library, a convention centre serves primarily as a venue for visitors (not residents), and relies quite fundamentally on the ability of those visitors to actually get to Halifax. Although the price of oil fluctuates in the short term, between 2000 and 2008, according to the BBC, oil went from between $25 and $30 a barrel to $139 per barrel. The cost of a plane ticket depends on a variety of factors, of course, but even if only 30 percent of the fare were tied to fuel costs, what would have been a $500 flight in 2000 could have conceivably been a $1,100 flight in 2008 following the same appreciation trends. And all of a sudden, travel to Halifax more than doubled in cost.
Furthermore, a price on carbon is a looming reality. Let us use Toronto to Halifax as an average round-trip flight distance for, say, 1,000 national convention delegates. At 0.74 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per delegate, that’s 740 tonnes for all 1,000 delegates. At present, any estimate on the cost of carbon is highly speculative, but in the absence of a legislated price with North American relevance, the US Environmental Protection Agency is working with a “social cost of carbon” estimate of $21 per tonne. Using this figure, which has raised concerns over being too low, the carbon tariffs alone stand to cost 1,000 delegates $15,540 for a single conference. While about $15 per delegate is hardly prohibitive, these costs will undoubtedly factor into decision-making about how to best spend business-development budgets for potential attendees, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when conference attendance begins to dwindle universally.
The convention centre may well turn out to be pivotal in revitalizing downtown Halifax, and the escalating cost of oil may ultimately have no influence its role in doing so. Imagining a world with hyper-elevated oil prices remains vague and hazy, but $300 million could be a transformative sum for the city. Considering both today and decades from now, particularly in light of inevitable carbon constraints, is this really how Halifax would best be served?
photo by John McCarthy