Your City for May 2013

It’s been eight months since The Scope ran a Your City column, which is not to say that there hasn’t been any city news happening in that time. Here’s a brief recap of all the action at city hall during Your City’s hiatus: Bannerman Park bandstand, height restrictions, height restrictions being waived, Sheilagh O’Leary, seniors’ homes, harbour fence fuss, parking meters, snow clearing, Tessier Place, Sheilagh O’Leary.

Good, now we’re all caught up.

City politics kicked off with a doozy of a meeting on April 1, followed by a string of ho-hum ones that were largely eclipsed by the shenanigans in the provincial legislature. Sigh.

After the austere and unpopular 2013 provincial budget was unveiled in late March, city council learned that St. John’s would no longer be a recipient of a Municipal Operating Grant (MOG). The city used to receive $3.4 million annually in MOGs. Councillor Danny Breen revealed that the city would have to scrap capital projects like the automated garbage collection initiative that council had been floating in March, because of this shortfall.

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe said this budget recalibration was an opportunity for a new fiscal relationship with the province. Technically, he’s right. Just because mom and dad cut their kids off doesn’t mean they stop being parents.

Other members of council were less sanguine than His Worship.

“I’m not sure if the provincial government knew what kind of impact this budget would have, but I’m disappointed because sometimes the attitude of government and people in the Confederation Building is that we have lots of money,” Councillor Tom Hann said. “Well, we don’t.”

After all the hand-wringing on the loss of the $3.4-million MOG, literally minutes later, council unanimously approved a $52.7 million expansion of the St. John’s Convention Centre.

The expansion is slated to cost almost $10 million more than the original figure proposed in 2011, and the cost will be borne by the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. The city of St. John’s is on the hook for over a third of the project’s price tag. After design, demolition, and infrastructure costs are factored into the total, the city will have to pay over $30 million. Council plans to recoup the cost with revenues from the city’s four per cent hotel room occupancy tax, rather than tax dollars from St. John’s residents.

The approval of the Convention Centre expansion was met with much speechifying and self-congratulation among council members. An atmosphere of rose-coloured optimism descended on Council Chambers, banishing the gloomy vapours of the lost MOG.

Basically, the city’s leaders are expecting that once the expansion is complete in the spring of 2016, St. John’s will be able to attract more conference traffic. The theory is, with increased annual conference numbers comes an infusion of cash into the local economy. Already this year, council approved a number of new hotels whose construction should coincide with the completion of the expansion.

Unfortunately, the “if you build it, they will come” approach that the Convention Centre expansion is predicated upon fails to take into account a few particulars about the St. John’s geography.

Put it this way: Winnipeg is a popular destination for conferences, and it’s not because of the staggering violent crime rate or the overachieving winter temperatures. It’s because Winnipeg is located more or less in the middle of Canada.

The distance between St. John’s and Vancouver is 5,011 kilometres. To compare, it’s about 5,009 kilometres between London and Bayramaly, Turkmenistan (in a region known collectively as Central Asia). For a closer-to-home comparison, it’s 5,060km from Toronto to Babahoyo, Ecuador. Ecuador! Notice how there are things like the Caribbean Sea and entire continents between these points? The thing is, Canada is a gigantic country and St. John’s is located on one edge of it.

Anyone who’s ever tried to fly anywhere from St. John’s knows precisely what our not-so-strategic location on the landmass means: It costs a lot. Period. Now, we might have the facilities to accommodate bigger conferences in 2016, but St. John’s will still be located 5,011km from Vancouver. Getting here is probably never going to get any cheaper than it is today. Logistically, facilities or no, it’s hard to imagine St. John’s being an attractive destination for the average (read: cost-sensitive) conference no matter how much we all may love it.

Since the cost of the expansion is going to be paid for by the hotel guests who are coming to these putative conferences, the whole thing seems like it’s on track to be a costly future lesson in the confluence of geography and economics.

Considering that at the start of the April 1 meeting council bemoaned losing $3.4 million in annual grants, resulting in the back-burnering of basic capital initiatives, it’s mind-boggling that the meeting wrapped up with the approval of a massive bricks-and-mortar capital expenditure whose benefits may just come to naught. Who knows? Maybe it will actually work. But this, for the record, is a pre-emptive “I told you so.”

Election Watch 2013

On April 4, CBC reported that mayoral candidate, council meeting disturber, and health activist Geoff Chaulk was withdrawing from the race, citing health reasons.

This leaves two contestants still in the running, the incumbent mayor Dennis O’Keefe and Councillor-at-Large Sheilagh O’Leary.

In late March, Ron Ellsworth announced he’s running for deputy mayor, a post that he previously held before he ran against Dennis O’Keefe in 2009.

Former Your City scribe Andrew Harvey is running for the seat of Ward 2 councillor again. He faces off against previous contender for councillor-at-large Simon Lono, and Jonathan Galgay, nephew of current Ward 2 councillor Frank Galgay.

In the race for Ward 3, candidate Walter Harding is proposing a salary freeze for elected municipal officials. He’s taking on fellow candidate Sarah Colborne Penney. Harding and Penney are both running against the incumbent, Councillor Bruce Tilley.

Bernard Davis has announced he’s running for Councillor Debbie Hanlon’s seat in Ward 4.

Happy City St. John’s founder Dave Lane announced his candidacy for councillor-at-large on April 17. File that one under “it’s a lock.”

Follow Nathan’s live-tweets of the regular St. John’s council meetings at www.­­thescopeNL