With the convention centre’s losses mounting, Halifax regional councillors are expressing interest in using the space as a homeless shelter.
Council was tasked with approving a fiscal 2020-2021 business plan for the convention centre at its meeting on Tuesday, a full eight months into the fiscal year. Despite a budgeted deficit of $11.1 million, council unanimously approved the plan.
Though there have been around 30 small events there so far this year, the 120,000-square-foot facility currently sits empty due to the latest public health measures — as it did for about six months of this year. In the meantime, Halifax is in the midst of a housing crisis. There are 492 people in HRM currently experiencing homelessness as of Tuesday, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia.
During the discussion at council, Coun. Lindell Smith floated the idea of using the convention centre as a homeless shelter.
“We’ve heard from residents many times, looking at the housing crisis and the homelessness issues that are happening around the city, and many organizations trying to find places to put folks now that the winter is coming,” Smith said. “I’m just wondering internally, has there been discussions around either what that means, if the convention centre has looked at potentially helping with that issue, or is it something that you’ve had discussions and decided it’s not within the mandate?”
“There has not been any reach out from either of our shareholders, so the municipality or the province, with respect to that specific issue,” Carrie Cussons, Events East’s president and CEO, replied.
“We’re always open for a conversation about how we can be helpful to the community. I guess I will leave that in the hands of either the municipality or the province to reach out on that.”
Mayor Mike Savage said he thought there had been a discussion around using the convention centre for shelter space during the first wave, but Cussons repeated there had not been any “reach out.”
Savage said he’d been in talks recently about emergency shelters, and suggested chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé and Erica Fleck, the municipality’s district chief of emergency management, should bring the issue to Cussons.
“Certainly we will take a look at that,” Dubé said. “We had not identified that as a site, simply because of the ongoing events going on there. We’re in a two-week hiatus now, going into the second week. If that is extended for a longer period of time we may well have to take a look at that option.”
Smith said he was “a little saddened” there hadn’t been an official conversation yet, and asked for a verbal update at some point.
“I probably didn’t make myself clear enough,” Dubé replied. “The issue for us and the issue for public health, in terms of the convention centre, is having people living in the facility at the same time as there are people coming in there for events. That interaction, that interface between those two different communities, made it literally impossible for that to happen.”
Dubé said if the convention centre was going to be completely closed for longer, it could happen, but he doesn’t see it happening in the short term.
Councillors also asked Cussons on Tuesday about the staffing numbers in the business plan. She told them there are usually 400 employees at the convention centre, and 300 of them have been cut.
“If we’ve gone from 400 employees to 100 employees, I’m seeing the salary and benefits have only changed slightly,” said Coun. Patty Cuttell.
The salaries and benefits budget line was cut from $3,894,000 pre-pandemic to $3,520,000, compared to a drop in revenue from $13,035,000 to $860,000.
But Cussons said the staff who were laid off were counted under the “Event Operations – Variable Cost” line item, cut from $5,397,000 pre-pandemic to $1,136,000.
Cussons said those workers — whom she described as “variable staff” — are hourly staff.
“It was a very difficult decision to make, but it was one that unfortunately, given the unprecedented circumstances, we did have to do,” Cussons said.
Defending the lack of any other cuts to salaried staffing, Cussons assured councillors the remaining staff are working hard to book and rebook events.
Cussons said she hopes the convention centre will reopen in January.
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