HALIFAX – Following years of controversy and delays Halifax’s new convention centre officially opened its doors Friday, with officials voicing confidence the massive development can attract the needed business to keep it afloat.
The convention centre is part of an estimated $500-million construction project that dominates downtown Halifax.
Taxpayers are spending $169.2 million for the convention centre as part of a deal with the developer that is cost shared by three levels of government.
First announced in July 2012, the entire one-million square foot development known as the Nova Centre, includes a hotel, office tower and public plaza. The Halifax Convention Centre, about the size of an entire city block, is to host its first event — the Canadian weightlifting junior nationals — on Jan. 20.
“When we first announced the project I thought I knew the meaning of perseverance,” Joe Ramia, president and CEO of Argyle Developments, told a crowd of invited guests during a ceremony in the facility’s giant ballroom.
“In hindsight at that point our journey had just begun and I had much to learn.”
The convention centre was originally slated to open in January 2016, but Ramia signalled as early as November 2014 that the date would be pushed back to September of 2016. That date was later revised to spring of 2017 before it too was changed in a November 2016 announcement to December of 2017.
At the time, Ramia said the delay was to allow for design changes and mechanical upgrades to the building. That cost the convention centre 22 events that had been booked for 2017.
The project was also the focus of intense debate within the city with opponents calling it a misuse of public money and too big for the location. At one point surrounding businesses fed up with the noise and dust from construction launched and eventually abandoned a lawsuit intended to recoup some of their financial losses because of a lack of customers.
On Friday, a small group of protesters stood outside the building and handed out leaflets as those invited inside filed in.
“The new convention centre is still the wrong use of public money, the wrong development, the wrong location and will continue to eat up a significant amount of public money in the coming 25 years,” the leaflet from Halifax Sane Development states.
Ramia took the criticisms in stride.
“Well, you can’t always satisfy everybody. All you can do is the best that you can,” he said. “Everybody has a voice and we respect all voices.”
Ramia said overall construction was about 98 per cent complete with the finishing touches expected to be ready by March. He said an announcement would likely come within a couple of weeks regarding an operator for the facility’s hotel.
In late 2012, criticism was also levelled by the province’s then auditor general Jacques Lapointe, who said projections for the project “lacked appropriate analysis given the size of the proposal.”
Lapointe also questioned whether enough convention business could be wrestled away from larger cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Convention centre CEO Carrie Cussons wouldn’t address the auditor’s concerns, but said that 90 events had already been booked for the first year of operations.
Cussons said that number included nearly three times more national and international events than have ever been hosted at the city’s much smaller convention facility.
She also expressed confidence the facility could thrive over the long term despite doubts expressed in some quarters about the viability of the convention business.
“Halifax is a unique and interesting destination that a lot of convention goers want to come to. I’m not really concerned about filling it (the convention centre) for the future.”
Premier Stephen McNeil said he wasn’t worried about the facility’s future viability.
“I’m very confident … it will continue to be able to support itself,” McNeil said.
The convention centre’s 25-year lease with the province is expected to be inked by the end of January.