Sunday, January 6, 2013

In Defence of the Winnipeg Convention Centre

Winnipeg Convention Centre Expands
There continues to be naysayers to the Winnipeg Convention Centre's expansion or to whether even the present operation should continue to be run. The main argument is that the city and province should not be in what is a declining business, compete against other venues and hotels and be subsidized.

The Canadian Taxpayer's Federation said a scaled back version of the expansion was more desirable. They fell short of some other critics who said the whole tri-level government government project was a fool's game. Some media have said the facility has been a sinkhole since inception and has no value. What seems to get them most riled up is the $3 million split between the city and the province to cover the loss of operations. The city and the province contribute around $4 million to Economic Development Winnipeg as well. Do critics think that is ill spent too? Or is their dislike for the Convention Centre even greater?

I'm not big on losses either and definitely think there are ways to keep from having to have the city and province backstop the building. For example, I often wonder why food services are not a whole lot better. The Centre Place Cafe often only operates Monday to Friday. Attend any trade show and you will find the food vendors to be too few and the selection of food more what you would find at a football game. Um, is it too much to ask for a Tim Horton's or other franchises? Wouldn't they make money?

Aside from food services, one wonders if the $3 million could not have been made up from parking fees. Portage Place raised its rate to $10 for a hockey games. Raising the rates to $10 for three hours at the Convention Centre all the time could potentially bring in half a million in a year.

The absorption of  surface lots this year plus changing the parking times and rates on the street has made the parkade more valuable. And the expansion adds another 150 parking spaces bringing the total to 710 spots. And even that won't seem enough when attending many of the trade shows.

For those who seem adamantly opposed to the convention centers, I agree we shouldn't be trying to compete in attracting conventions that might come our way once in a blue moon. But what about tried and true local trade shows and conventions?

Where do they go if we shut down the Convention Centre? I have not heard any suggestions and one suspects that some of the critics don't care. They will say if there if there is a business case for it, the private sector will step up. Well, you can make that case for everything including the entire system of government. I am not quite sure having the Hudson Bay Company take over country operations again is the way to go.

Throughout our history, public facilities have been used to host trade shows. The Winnipeg Auditorium built in 1932 during the Depression was served as the place for conventions and trade shows right up till the 1960s. It also served as the home for the home or fulfilled the purposes of our present Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Manitoba Museum, the Centennial Concert Hall and the MTS Centre. In all the years this Art Deco style building operated, it was only once made money. It was established to serv a "public good." Today the building still serves a public good as the Manitoba Provincial Archives.

I am sure that some of the crankier people out there would say if an art gallery or museum can't make a business case for their operations, they don't deserve to be around. Well, I for one am glad that these institutions all had a place to call home even if no money was to be made.

I believe the city does need a hall to host trade shows and conventions. I don't know how easy it is to measure the economic importance such a facility has but consider this: Downtown hotel rooms and restaurants are filled for big shows and parking lots are packed. Lots of business gets done in terms of people purchasing wedding items, boats and home renovations among a number of products and services at shows.

How much business do some of these companies make in a year when they fill a whole order book for new kitchens? Does it not make sense that maybe through a variety of business, sales and personal taxes, the government gets back what they invest?

Winnipeg has benefited strongly from having trade shows and conventions. Moreover, they are fun. Now, this in no way means we should aspire for the new renovations at the Convention Centre to mean poor management and greater supports from levels of governments. I think it is possible to get close to break even or even small surpluses based on fees, franchises inside and possibly advertising.

The outright skepticism and cold water poured onto the Convention Centre and namecalling it a white elephant is not exactly accurate. But if silencing the critics by generating more revenue helps, then by all means it should happen.

1 comment:

John Dobbin said...

OMC: The 1970 provincial Development Plan specifically identified two areas for a focused effort: The Cumberland area and the Broadway-St, Mary area. Prior to that, there was bit of a scattershot approach to renewal.

In 1968, there were only 10,000 people living downtown and the cost of building a family dwelling was among the highest on the prairies. Part of the plans was to create affordable housing in large complexes around central park and the other was to create the convention center around St. Mary.

Why there? Well, it was considered fringe of downtown. Pictures of the street showed low density housing, parks and parking lots. Some of the parking lots had been stables prior. There was quite a lot of this on the south side of Portage Avenue. And the houses looked like their better days a few decades earlier.

In 1970, this looked to be a marginal site. Moreover, there was an unexpected boom in apartment building going up the area and a few office towers. This looked to be the best spot to connect our large downtown.