More local than I’ve posted before…

Now that I’m living in Nova Scotia, I’m paying a lot of attention to local politics, and there’s lots to pay attention to.  Last summer I was stunned that the New Democratic Party won the provincial election, putting a social democratic party in power here.  The Progressive Conservative Party had dominated Nova Scotia for many years, but their last Premier, Rodney MacDonald, didn’t really make much of impression, and was swept out of office and out of politics altogether.  They ran a pretty stereotypical campaign from the right, running stark ads more based on fear and negativity.  The NDP made some ridiculous promises but did win.

Anyhow, they haven’t run the place into the ground, and I’ve actually gotten the impression that they’re taking a realistic approach to dealing with the budget deficit problem, insofar as they’re consulting the electorate.  They’re trying to determine where to cut the budget, where to raise taxes, and it looks like they’ll come up with something reasonable.  I hope, anyhow.  The entire Legislature is embroiled in an expenses scandal too though, although it’s mainly the PC guys that were really up to no good it seems like.

What’s really been interesting me though is what’s been going on in Halifax lately.  Since my career is likely going to keep me here, and that’s my choice of course,  the city’s affairs are pretty interesting and there’s a lot things going on there.  Most of the controversy that’s really interesting to me involves the development of downtown Halifax.

Every city will claim that it’s unique, but among the cities I’ve been to or looked at with any interest, Halifax sort of has a valid claim.  Politically speaking, Halifax is actually a “megacity” – its run by a regional council which includes three cities (Halifax, Dartmouth, and Bedford) and a pretty large swath of rural areas including a myriad of small communities.  Halifax proper is one of the oldest cities in North America, it’s built on a peninsula which is pretty steep.  Downtown itself features a lot of older buildings (including what are called the Historic Properties) that reflect the city’s heritage, and at the top of the hill sits the Halifax Citadel, a military fortress that was part of the Halifax Defence Complex when the city was established as a Royal Navy garrison.

Economically, Halifax is a little unusual as well, it’s very much a government town.  The biggest employers in town are the provincial government in various forms, and the military, with Halifax being the home of the Atlantic Fleet of our Navy, home port of quite a few ships.  A lot of people think tourism’s a big part of the economy,but apparently it isn’t, according to at least one source I read, it was only about 4% of GDP.

Anyhow, the source of much debate right now seems to be the development of downtown, because there’s a huge battle between the Heritage Trust who seem to want to preserve the lower part of downtown exactly as it is – and those who want to see development happen.  The debate is pretty intense, and got me thinking quite a lot.  The current debate centres around a proposal to build a large convention centre, something the city doesn’t have.  The Heritage Trust types oppose it, claiming, among other things, that it will obstruct the view of the harbour from Citadel Hill.  That’s probably true, but I have to wonder how many people really take in that view, since it costs $10 to get into the Citadel.  I fail to see, beyond that, how one building can interfere with an almost 180 degree view from the ramparts of the fort.

I get the impression that the convention centre concept could draw a lot of people to the city – theoretically it could be a good draw for more businesses to come to the area.  Right now, there’s not a lot of reason to go downtown, save for bars at night.  Barrington Street, one of the “main drags” used to be full of shops and so on, and lately they’ve all closed.  A developer’s bought up tons of the properties and is apparently trying to redevelop them, put in nice apartments in them, but why would someone want to live on Barrington above empty stores.

The problems are varied.  Parking downtown sucks.  Traffic is also problematic.  Being an old city the roads are not particularly large, built on steep hills, and are somewhat complicated to navigate if you don’t know your way around.  While there’s a fairly extensive public transit system, it could be improved, though doing so isn’t easy.  Rail isn’t really an economical option due to the layout of the city (there’s enough problems with bottlenecks of rail traffic getting in and out of the container terminals, as I understand it, never mind commuter rail).

The motivation to consider this stuff is the concern of most cities – raising tax revenue to pay for decaying infrastructure.  Halifax Water just announced they want to raise their rates by 40% to cover massive projected infrastructure outlays, including as I understand it, fixing the disaster that is their sewage system.  Halifax dumps raw sewage into the harbour, which is pretty disgusting when you think about it.  A huge, fancy new sewage treatment plant was built, and Mayor Peter Kelly made a big production of swimming in the harbour to celebrate.  In no time at all, however, the plant suffered a catastrophic failure and was shut down.

So the debate becomes how to increase the tax base – or rather, to increase revenue?  The discussion seems to be rather daft.  One of the ideas floated was to have a charge to come onto the peninsula (into the city proper, that is), like the London Congestion Charge.  This is quite possibly the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of.  It was floated in Toronto as well and I didn’t think it was a great idea there, but for Halifax it’s even sillier.  In London, it’s workable – the idea is to persuade people not to drive into the City, and it’s not terrible because there are so many public transit options.  There’s no real need to drive into the City of London.  Toronto has a decent transit system but even at that I think that a broad charge would be enough to persuade people not to bother going into the downtown area… though the cost of parking in Toronto works for that too.  Halifax, however, enjoys no such luxury.  There’s no real alternative to getting into town quickly, and there’s everything one could probably want outside of downtown in what are called “business parks” like Bayers Lake and Dartmouth Crossing.  [as an aside, Halifax is a little strange – everything is parks, except parks.  Haligonians live in Parks and play on Commons.]

The reality is that not only would such a charge impact people going into the city to dine, to shop, etc, it would also potentially lead to an exodus of businesses.  Why try to entice people to pay to commute downtown when you can locate your business outside of downtown, like several major employers seem to do.

Halifax politics seems to wrap up a lot of issues, because it includes the rural/urban debate – those who live in the far-flung rural areas that still fall under HRM understandably don’t see value in their tax dollars going to fund downtown when they want things like city water brought to them, which is an expensive proposition.  Residents of communities like Beaver Bank north of the city have seen their wells go dry from growth and now are footing bills to get their subdivisions connected to municipal services.  Imagine how this makes me, planning to build a house outside of the city, feel.

Back to the city – Halifax is, I’m worrying, going to suffer from a hollowing of its downtown if it doesn’t keep investing in reasons to be downtown.  Look at London, Ontario as an example – the downtown area is hollowed out, unattractive, and doesn’t really compel anyone to go there.  Or at least, a few years ago it didn’t, but my friends who live there seem to suggest that it’s the same way, the places people want to go are on the fringes of the city.

And the reasonings for leaving downtown alone?  Preservation of a view of the harbour?  Really?  That’s a compelling reason to let the city fade?  I’d like to have something profound to say about that, but I don’t really say as well as some do.  It was only a matter of time before someone took the oft-satired scene from the bunker in Downfall, and resubtitled it to get Hitler’s view on the Heritage Trust.  It’s actually pretty funny, but it’s got a biting point – sure the view can be preserved, but for who?  And is one building, which could quite likely draw a lot of people into downtown, really going to ruin the whole view anyhow?

But this is the kind of thing that gets debated.  They even got into a debate about whether they should continue to allow concerts on the Halifax Commons.  In recent years, they’d had Paul McCartney, Keith Urban, and KISS play open air shows right downtown.  There’s been problems about the state of the lawns afterward, but as I understand it, the most recent big show, McCartney, had convenants to cover the remediation.  The shows draw pretty huge crowds, and I can offer at least anecdotal evidence of the benefits.  Last year when McCartney was in town, I was in downtown Halifax for a wedding.  I don’t know what hotel bookings were like since I have the advantage of being able to stay on the Naval Base, but there was definitely a lot of people in town.  The morning of the show, we went to Jane’s On the Common, right by the show, and the place was packed and quite a few of the people there had come from afar for the show, including the couple beside us who were from Montreal.

That’s economic activity – that’s exactly what the city needs.  The idea of chasing concerts out of the city when Moncton is close by and draws huge crowds is just plain stupid.  I don’t see why they’d even discuss that – just because people who live close to the Commons whined to their councillor I guess.  For a few days of the year, they should just invest in earplugs – because I think they’d do better with those than seeing their taxes rise without that sort of money coming in.

No, I’m not running for city council.  I can’t anyhow, since I don’t live in HRM anyhow.  But some day, you never know…

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