How a field of dreams becomes a nightmare

How many times shall southeastern New Brunswick pose the question: Do Main Streets matter? Specifically, for Greater Moncton’s entirely fictional downtown events centre: Does such a public facility, awash in politics, deserve to be born here?

It is, perhaps, only natural to expect a fundamentally sound commercial idea in New Brunswick to fall prey to the petty votepandering and posturing that we’ve all grown to accept as a matter of daily discourse in this decidedly unpromising corner of the country.

Still, that doesn’t excuse the jaw-dropping imbecility that both the Grit-ruled commissars of New Brunswick and the Tory clones in the imperial Government of Canada seem determined to manufacture in their respective efforts to win friends and influence people over yet another municipal turf war, just in time for the next federal election.

In this instance, the turf in question is an 11-acre demolition zone which a downtown, mixed-use sports and entertainment facility might one day occupy. For years, if not decades, successive municipal, provincial and federal governments have debated the merits of underwriting the construction of a downtown centre here. And the argument has always resolved itself winningly.

No less an authority than David Campbell (now, the Province’s senior economist, but once an independent economic development consultant) concluded in 2013 that a new centre would annually “attract between 317,000 and 396,000 people …generating between $12 and $15 million in spending.” In the process, he declared, it will “support retail, food service, accommodation and other services in the downtown.”

In fact, he added, Moncton’s urban core “generates nearly 11.5 times as much property tax revenue, compared to the rest of (the city), on a per hectare basis… The cost to service the downtown is much lower compared to many other areas around the city.”

These findings were consistent with those of virtually every other study on the effects of downtown event centres on economic development. When London, England’s South Bank facility opened, it literally reinvented commercial investment in what was once a social wasteland. When London, Ontario’s Budweiser Centre opened its doors, it launched an urban renewal craze that was almost unparalleled in Canada.

So, why not here in Moncton, where no gathering-place of this kind has ever existed? After all, in a province where economic opportunity is rapidly becoming a unicorn (legendary in power; mythological in reality), the southeast is the indisputable bright spot, consistently beating the national average in population increase, income growth, educational attainment, immigration retention, commercial innovation, and capital investment.

At the heart of this sits Moncton (Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, to be precise) showing the rest of the province how to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, how to make lemonade from lemons, how to turn a cliché into a main chance for durable success.

Now, however, New Brunswick’s new Liberal government has decided, with questionable wisdom, that a paltry contribution of $24 million (in a total $107-million infrastructure build) to a downtown centre for Moncton — a facility that would, for decades, provide extraordinary social and economic benefits to the entire province — is not worth the short-term political risk; at least, not as long as the federal Conservative government refuses to come to the table first with an extensive commitment.

As Prime Minister Harper prepares to square off against federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, one might imagine how the optics of a Grit-Tory alliance on such a paltry matter as Moncton’s urban renewal would loom disproportionately large in the halls of partisan power at precisely the wrong time in the election calendar.

Still, that’s how a dream becomes a nightmare and, in the end, how a worthy economic project becomes a shining example of how politics ensures that the loser takes all.

Does Main Street matter? Only, perhaps, as turf for political football.

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