Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Controversy on the Commons

It’s not that people are upset that the provincial and local governments kicked in nearly a million dollars to bring Paul McCartney to the Commons to play for nearly 50,000 people, it’s that they funded a private company to bring him here and didn’t tell anyone they were doing it.

The provincial government threw $600,000 to Power Promotions – the company responsible for booking the biggest show in Halifax last year. $300,000 of that money was used for marketing the concert, the other $300,000 was a loan to Power Promotions promoter Harold MacKay to cover part of Macca’s $3.5 million fee. Add to that the $200,000 the municipal government threw into the pot and this is where things get sticky.

Other government-funded concerts and events throughout the country haven’t warranted this much negative response from taxpayers. The government of Quebec, for example, paid the entire bill for McCartney’s $3.5 million guarantee and provided the people of Quebec City with a free concert in 2008. Their only complaint was that he didn’t play enough French songs.

So what’s the issue here?

One word: transparency.

I’m sure lots of people would have been upset if the governments came out before the concert and said “Listen, we’re going to give this guy nearly a million dollars in order to provide you with one of the most memorable concerts in Halifax history,” but at least they would have known.

There may have been protests, political debates and lots of idiots on message boards and social network sites complaining until their tight jeans fell off, but the fact of the matter is once the concert was over and paid for, the average tax payer would have not been in the dark about the deal.

The other problem is that the government basically agreed to fund a private enterprise by special request. Do you think that if I walked into Province House tomorrow and asked them for $600,000 to start a record label or to invest in a community radio station they would fork over the cash? No. Then again, a record label and/or a radio station wouldn’t contribute millions of dollars to the local economy in the same way tourists would (the exact numbers on the McCartney concert are still unavailable, though the Rolling Stones show on the Commons back in 2006 pumped about $8 million into the local economy according to this CBC article.)

I’m not above telling you that I don’t care whether or not my tax dollars go to paying for a concert that draws 50,000 people to our city’s common space. Hell, only 20,000-30,000 people showed up for KISS the next weekend and I would have been OK with paying for that. Public or private enterprise, please – take my cash. But maybe you should think about telling me about it first.

Granted our tax money goes to a lot worse things than paying a former Beatle to play for three hours. Richard Hurlburt, the former MLA of my old hometown, spent a boatload of my tax money on buying generators for his home and swindling even more money out of us by renting his government-paid apartment out to someone who may or may not have been his mistress. Canadians contribute millions of dollars a year to fund the Palestinian genocide at the hands of the Israelis. The list goes on.

At the very least, the provincial government is going a long way to prove that they support the arts and see these concerts and a viable investment both for the community's leisure and for a potential economic return. Let's also not forget that the recent NDP budget didn't contain any arts cuts.

The big danger in all this, in my opinion, is that this back door decision may turn even more people off from concerts on the Commons.

Frankly, I’m tired of hearing everyone bitching and moaning about the downfalls of these huge shows that are putting Halifax on the concert destination map.

Other than the Rolling Stones show four years ago – which was admittedly executed and set-up poorly – the Commons have come out decently in tact after these shows. Even if there are minimal wounds, they are only inflicted on one corner of the Commons for a brief period of time. After learning from their mistakes, concert set-ups have become not only more efficient but also less damaging to the space.

Having a concert does not deter people from using the Commons. Yes, it is one of the only green spaces we share in this city but do the amount of people using the Commons in the run of an entire summer total the 80,000 that used the space over a one-week span to see McCartney and KISS?


Even if those numbers did happen to match up, I don’t play sports or walk my dog or play ultimate Frisbee. I’m a fat guy (although I am partial to a good game of “Tips” every now and then because it involves minimal movement). I want to see concerts in Halifax. Why should you be able to enjoy the Commons and not me?

And even if I’m not happy with the acts gracing the stage (seriously, nobody cares about Kevin Costner’s band except maybe my friend Mandy because she is the only person I know with a Costner obsession) or the price of tickets ($100 to see Weezer? Don’t think so), at least we’re proving that we’re a big enough city to host huge concerts.

We deserve some attention here in this corner of the world. Plus, it’s better than driving to Moncton (though their venue is better).

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