SOMETIMES OLD IDEAS become new again. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not so much.
The idea of a Kamloops convention centre has raised its head. So has the idea of a business association for the southwest commercial area. Both have been tried before, and failed.
The fact that something didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean it’s doomed to failure the second time, but there are always lessons to be learned.
The convention centre suggestion comes from City council candidate Jim Michals. He might not know it, but others thought the same thing, back in the late ‘90s. The council of the day made an arrangement to partner with a developer to get it built with a taxpayer subsidy.
It seemed like a good idea and, in concept, it still is. Convention centres give cities a sense of pride and a feeling of vibrancy. And they certainly help out the hotel industry and tourism businesses.
Trouble is, they’re almost impossible to make money on. The competition is intense, and they typically have to be heavily subsidized. Studies have been done and books have been written on the economics of convention centres and the verdict is clear — if you want to build a convention centre, be ready to pay, and pay.
The upkeep is expensive because they’re big buildings and every so often need major repairs. And the operating costs are high.
The Penticton Trade and Convention Centre is more than 30 years old and has undergone some major facelifts in its day. It faces another one in the near future that could cost a few million. The South Okanagan Events Centre complex, of which the trade and convention centre is part, was running with a $1.1-million annual subsidy as of 2015. And the convention business is dropping.
So some have suggested Penticton should get out of the convention business.
Another example is the Vancouver Convention Centre. It cost $883.2 million to build in 2009, almost double the estimate. Its operating deficits are in the millions.
So, before anyone gets on the bandwagon for a Kamloops convention centre, read up on how these facilities lose buckets of money. That’s why the Kamloops Convention Centre didn’t go ahead back in the ‘90s.
Another old idea that’s been renewed involves the creation of the Uptown Business Association, “dedicated to making Uptown Kamloops a more vibrant place to work, play and do business.”
Lawyer David Hughes, one of the people behind the group, says it will promote walkability and festivals and so on in the business zone between the top of Columbia Street hill and Hillside Drive.
That’s pretty much the same area that was the stomping grounds for the Southwest Business Improvement Association, again about 20 years ago. It, too, wanted to market the neighborhood and make it more attractive. It, too, promoted events to help do that.
It failed because it couldn’t sustain the support of businesses in the area. The southwest is different from the Downtown or the North Shore — both of which have successful business improvement associations — in that geographically it’s less concentrated. Businesses are more spread out. There are actually several commercial neighbourhoods, bisected by major shopping centres, in the southwest.
But the idea of trying again has merit. Walkability is hugely important, and if this new group can advocate for improvements and a sense of identity there, I say go for it.
It may be that keeping Uptown Kamloops as a non-profit association rather than structuring it as a business improvement association will help. It’s an old idea with a new twist, and it just might work.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former school board chair, former editor of The Kamloops Daily News, and a current director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He was awarded the Jack Webster Foundation’s lifetime achievement award in 2011. His editorials are published regularly on CFJC Today and he appears Wednesdays on the CFJC-TV evening news with his Armchair Mayor commentary. Contact him at email@example.com.