March 16, 2006

Halifax 2014: Our Common Wealth

Note: Since the original publication of this post, I have corrected the spelling of Bruce DeVenne's name.

A couple of months back, Halifax (my home town) won the right to be Canada's bid city for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. (Incidentally, the 2006 Commonwealth Games are going on right now. What? You hadn't heard? Yes, I'm sure.) A delegation of prominent Nova Scotians — three of whom I know quite well — is in Melbourne now, lobbying and observing the preparations and staging.

Inevitably, there is also a group of local citizens mobilizing to prevent the Games from coming to Halifax. Yesterday on CBC Radio's Information Morning I heard one of them interviewed. Bruce DeVenne has launched a new web site, (For non-locals, HRM stands for Halifax Regional Municipality.)

When I heard the interview, I assumed that Bruce DeVenne was the anonymous author of, but it turns out I had the wrong anti-hosting web site. is still only half-baked and there is not much content yet, although Mr. DeVenne has collected some interesting historical data. has been operational longer, and although the site appears to be a bit borked right now, there is a lot more original content, and it is more coherently presented.

My own thoughts on the issue are also only half-baked, but to get in the spirit of things I thought I would share them anyway. I certainly don't want to get into a war of web sites over any issue, let alone one as local as this, but I have a feeling that I will be writing more about it over the next months (before the host selection) and years (if Halifax is selected).

So here's my naive view of the issue, as it relates to the taxpayer. Currently, the anti- side in this debate is entirely focused on cost, eager to tally up every cent of taxpayer money that might be spent on anything related to the Commonwealth Games. There are three types of costs associated with hosting a competition on this scale. There are the costs of building the required infrastructure; the costs of winning, planning, organizing, and staging the competition itself; and the costs of maintaining the infrastructure after the games are over.

If we consider, as Mr. DeVenne does, the sum total of these costs as the "cost" of the Commonwealth Games, the major part of the burden will be borne by the local taxpayer. Anybody who denies this is a dreamer, in my opinion, and ignoring historical reality — hosting a major Games is not free. But the question that Mr. Devanney and the anti-lobbyists ignore is this: what do you get for your money?

To stave off (a small part of) the criticism I am about to get from my economist friends, I'm not talking about some mythical long-term economic benefit, like a future flood of tourists drawn to Halifax by the Commonwealth Games. I think that kind of "Boom Vision" planning has been pretty well discredited already. But we're not just throwing the money away, either; we're buying something. And when you're deciding whether or not to buy something, cost is only half of the equation.

So we need to ask ourselves, and our politicians, some key questions related to the three categories of costs.

  • Can the direct costs of winning, planning, organizing, and staging the Commonwealth Games be balanced by the direct revenue generated from ticket sales, corporate sponsorship, broadcast rights, etc.? Should we expect a net loss? A net gain? In this case I would include taxes collected from out-of-town spectators as direct revenue, although we should be careful to consider only the marginal increase in tourism due to the Commonwealth Games.
  • Can we, as a municipality, afford the costs of building the necessary infrastructure? Do we want to? Is there something else we should be spending our money on instead? A complicating factor here is that building the infrastructure might be a "good deal" if we do it as preparation for a major Games. A new sports stadium constructed for the Commonwealth Games will get subsidized by the federal and provincial governments, and by corporate sponsors, whereas a new sports stadium otherwise might not.
  • Can we, as a municipality, afford the costs of maintaining and operating that infrastructure after the Games are over? Again, do we want to? Is there something else we should be spending our money on?

The first question is relatively easy to answer, if we believe that it is possible to accurately forecast expenses and revenues. I think it is reasonable to expect that Halifax can break even or make a profit on the Games themselves. Many other cities have done it — remember, I'm leaving the major infrastructure costs out of this — and we should expect it, too.

On the second and third questions, reasonable people will disagree, because this is a matter of values and priorities. Bid committee CEO Scott Logan has referred to the necessary spending as an "investment," but that's sort of like calling your new car an "investment." We're putting some of our money into a depreciating asset that will cost still more money to own. Let's just be honest about that. But it doesn't logically follow that we shouldn't spend that money — just like it doesn't logically follow that you shouldn't buy that car you've been saving up for. We do need to ask ourselves how much we are going to pay, and what we are going to get in return; and then we, as a democratic society, need to decide if that is something that we should do with everybody's tax money.

To some people, every public dollar spent on sport is a dollar wasted. And those people, as members of our community, deserve to be heard; but I disagree with them. I think that sport is important. I also think that hosting the Commonwealth Games will give Halifax an opportunity — one we will not otherwise have — to build some sport and civic infrastructure that is sorely needed. Those developments will make Halifax a better place to live, and I am willing to pay for that.

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