Can a convention centre thrive when carbon has a cost?

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

5 comments

  1. I agree. Let’s build a city for locals, not a city for tourists.

  2. You are quoting a $300 million price tag to be split between the 3 levels of government. Rank Inc. who is building the complex will actually pay $200 million of that price tag with only 1/3 being publically funded. This new convention centre will bring people and vitality into the downtown of our city, not only to bring visitors but bring prosperity for hundreds of small businesses. If we don’t revitalize our downtown and ensure it is vibrant and filled with life, we will not be able to sustain ourselves as young people choose to relocate to other cities who have filled their needs.
    The meetings and events industry in is worth $77 million in direct spending in Halifax each year and without a world class faciltiy, we simply will not be able to compete. We are competing in a massive global industry worth more than $500 billion. Let’s be sure we host as many people as possible in our beautiful city to bring prosperity to our region. We know our global world is changing but face to face interaction is critical for business success and is the entire mandate of the association market (the most stable and profitable of the convention business). We will attract more and more people to our downtown with the new multi-complex. Please don’t forget there will be office tower workers and hotel staff as part of this complex which will bring thousands of local people to the downtown everyday.

  3. Plus in the future, we should hope there are other ways of getting around Canada/North America besides flying. High Speed Rail, anyone?

  4. Robert, I think you miss the point of this article. You say that “face to face interaction is critical for business success,” but when it becomes unprofitable for businesses to send their delegates to a city, due to escalating travel costs, where does Halifax end up? With a nice, shiny new convention centre that’s empty most of the year.

    Yes, face-to-face is critically important for businesses, but without the industries to support it and make it a go-to place for that industry, Halifax becomes an “exotic” location for a conference and not a “regular” location like Toronto or New York.

    I’m skeptical of the whole “build it and they will come” philosophy. You can’t expect a convention centre to be an “angel” investment to revitalize your city. You need the people first, then the industry, and that will drive the demand for a convention centre.

  5. Roberta Dexter’s comments miss a very important part of the idea that this will be a huge catalyst for downtown…the physical aspects of the proposed centre.  In the plans that have been shown thus far, the convention centre is entirely underground, embedded in a complex which will contain a hotel, restaurants, shops, bars, etc.  Convention goers will be able to spend several days in Halifax and never have to leave the building, which, of course, is very favourable for the developer but doesn’t hold out much hope for downtown merchants or existing hotels. Also, the convention business(which Save the View has defined as an event occuring over at least two days and involving delegates from outside Nova Scotia) is active only five months of the year, another factor to consider when considering the effect on downtown.  The Coalition to Save the View encourages everyone to read the consultants’ reports (they are on the WTCC website) and the Save the View analysis of these reports (www.savetheview.ca…clic on the happenings section).  I think you will find quite a different pricture than the one Ms Dexter paints.

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