Like a fireworks display, the end of the province’s lengthy string of funding promises arrived Wednesday with a splashy and — with an estimated $63 million for three projects — expensive finale.
Three levels of government were on hand, funding committed, for Wednesday afternoon’s announcement at the St. John’s Convention Centre, which will be getting the lion’s share of that money — $43.2 million — for a five-year expansion to double its current useable space. The cost is to be split equally among the federal and provincial governments and the city of St. John’s. Premier Kathy Dunderdale also announced $8.6 million from the province (to be matched by the federal government) to complete the restoration and modernization of the historic Colonial Building, which used to house the provincial legislature and archives. That funding will be added to $4.4 million previously committed by the province and $625,000 from the federal government.
“I have a great deal of personal support for the restoration of the Colonial Building,” said Dunderdale. “I really do mean it when I say it’s a historic gem in this province. So much that has shaped us, so much that is important to us, so much that we still debate took place in that arena, and I think that we should treasure it and take very good care of it. And if we can’t do that at this point in our history, I don’t know when we could do it.”
The building will be reopened to the public by 2014 as an interpretation centre on the province’s political history and will house not-for-profit heritage organizations, as well as potentially hosting special sittings of the provincial legislature.
Finally, $3 million will go towards redeveloping a former industrial site in Paradise into a community park, with the cost shared among the town of Paradise and the federal and provincial governments. The park will contain a gazebo, outdoor stage, canteen, splash pad, dog park and trail network. “The town of Paradise has seen significant growth in the last number of years, and with this growth comes the need to increase infrastructure and opportunities in the community,” said Dunderdale.
Peter Penashue, Labrador MP and federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, said infrastructure helps define the places people live.
“Maintaining, improving, managing this public infrastructure is critical to ensure that our communities remain strong and competitive,” he said.
St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe said the city aims to double the amount of economic benefit — which he said was currently valued at $35 million — St. John’s sees from the convention industry with the centre’s expansion, which he said would benefit the entire province through tourism spinoffs. He said as things stand, the centre can host conventions of about 700 people.
“What this will do now is enable us to go out to the convention market, compete with other centres in Atlantic Canada for conventions that are at the next level, up around 12 to 13-, 1,400 people,” he said. The $43.2 million is more than double the $20.5 million cost to build Mile One stadium (which would amount to just over $25 million in today’s dollars).
While each level of government is a committed to one-third of the cost of the expansion, O’Keefe said details of cost overruns would have to be worked out.
“If there are cost overruns, and there may very well be, then that would be something that we would have to look at again with the province and the federal government, but the current arrangement is that they are responsible for one-third (each). We are one-third, and beyond that I guess we’ll have to see what happens.”
Dale Jarvis, St. John’s folklorist and historian, called the eventual reopening of the Colonial building a “great thing.”
“It’s a building that is really significant in terms of not only the political history, but I think it has an emotional significance to a lot of Newfoundlanders,” he said. “I think it’s a building whose story hasn’t been as well understood as it could be, and that’s one of the things that I’m intrigued about and interested about the redevelopment of the building.”
After the news conference, Dunderdale said the day’s announcements — which included $50.6 million for new recreational facilities in Conception Bay South, Paradise, Harbour Grace and Marystown — marked the end of funding promises, with a caveat.
“Unless there’s something extraordinary that takes place,” she said. “I’m sensitive to the fact that the writ will be dropped in the next month, and I want to play fair. I hope everybody comments on that, because that is likely a first in the political history of elections here in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
The premier also dismissed criticism that the funding announcements — the province’s share of the $63 million is $24.1 million — amounted to buying votes in an election year.
“I don’t know how you could do that, given all of this money was announced in April. This is our budget. This is not new money we’re spending,” she said. “This is normal practice. You bring down a budget and then you spend the ensuing months telling people what the details of that budget are. There’s nothing going on here now that hasn’t gone on every year since we’ve brought down a budget, no matter who formed the government. This is normal, standard practice. If I were spending outside of the budget, then I could understand that kind of a criticism. But telling people how their money is going to be spent, how that offends people given that the money was announced in April, I’m at a loss to understand.”