Olympics Well Worth It: Harcourt

Former premier comes out swinging against naysayers, says billions invested will pay off. A Tyee interview.

By Geoff Dembicki 5 Feb 2010 |

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee.

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Former NDP premier Mike Harcourt: 'A chance to re-brand the city.'

In a much-quoted January poll, only half of B.C. respondents foresaw a positive legacy from the 2010 Games. The first thing Sports Illustrated writer David Zirin noticed here on a recent trip was the "frowns", and protesters keep painting the Olympics as a wasteful boondoggle.

Don't tell that to former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, who was mayor of Vancouver during the last global extravaganza hosted by the city: Expo 86.

The city gained critical infrastructure that laid the groundwork for prosperous years to come, claims Harcourt, and he reads the balance sheet for the Olympics the same way.

In fact the billions of dollars spent are so clearly worth it, he has "nothing to say" to people who claim the Games are a tax payer rip-off. But please, Harcourt says, don't call Vancouver a world class city.

In a free-swinging interview with The Tyee, here's what Harcourt had to say...

On Expo 86 as a defining moment for Vancouver:

"It was when we got noticed as a different kind of city. For 15 years or more we'd been redefining ourselves. The crunch point was saying no to a water-front freeway.

"We had a whole view of what a city could be that was quite different from the elite North American and European planners who thought they knew best by equating freeways with urban renewal. We said you're wrong. We defied the disastrous idea of cars pouring into a nine-to-five downtown where people worked and fled to suburban homes. That whole idea screwed up most cities in North America."

On how to 'ruthlessly exploit' a global spectacle:

"Expo allowed us to show off those ideas. And Vancouver was quite ruthless in successfully exploiting Expo to get infrastructure that should be in place anyway. 

"Expo used city money to clear north-east False Creek. We remediated the land as a temporary site for Expo and redeveloped it as Concord Pacific.

"We replaced the Cambie Street bridge. The old bridge was a disaster. Traffic got interrupted when it opened up to allow barges through. It had four lanes with a big swing-span in the middle of it. You closed your eyes it was so narrow. Trucks would slide off the wooden railing into the harbour when it got slippery and icy.

"We built the Expo transit line and the Canada Place trade, conference and cruise-ship facility. We got a ton of publicity that allowed us to exploit our economic strategy, which was shifting from a century of sawmills and resource extraction to the 21st century economy of service, knowledge and a gateway role to the Asian-Pacific.

"We were able describe how we were becoming one of the three most liveable cities in the world by changing the whole idea of a city. Everyone saw that Vancouver wasn't this sleepy little provincial city on the back end of the country."

On tourism (good) and evictions (bad):

"We had a very good tourism strategy that targeted the movie industry, the cruise ship industry, and business people wanting to come back on vacation and see B.C. It allowed Vancouver and B.C. to have double-digit tourism growth for 15 years after that.

"There were some downsides that I was quite angry about. There was dislocation of low-income people on the Downtown Eastside that could have been avoided but wasn't. I asked for tenant protection legislation but the province refused. A number got evicted and some died. That was the one dark spot."

On how Expo compares to the 2010 Winter Games:

"Time and intensity and exposure. The time is obvious. Expo was a six month, 'Class B' World's Fair with the theme of transportation. The intensity and exposure was far less than a two and half week sporting event.

"The Olympics have probably about 100 times more intensity than a World's Fair. You're going to get three billion people seeing various aspects."

On how Vancouver can best use the Olympics spotlight:

"It gives us a chance to re-brand the city. The mayor's done that quite cleverly on advice from me and David Suzuki on the Greenest City Action Plan. We're going to become one of most sustainable cities in the world.

"We're going to encourage new investment to come here. Green conservation. Renewable energy. Green building approaches. Green transportation. The city's got a strategy to invite 100 potential investors in these industries to come see Vancouver during the Olympics.

"I think it's an another opportunity to show how the city is transforming itself from a conventionally dead downtown and sprawling suburbs. We've been on the wrong track in North America for 60 years with massive increases of greenhouse gas emissions, squandering of scarce resources and capital. Now we're having to re-do the way we do cities.

"There's a different story this time, but it's that Vancouver has been growing from a liveable city to a sustainable city. We're throwing out the message to other cities to do the same."

On what we got, and people who grumble that the Games will cost at least $6 billion, which could be better spent elsewhere:

"Yes. It's worth the cost. People can be like a one-column accountant. They see the cost but they don't see the benefit.

"What is the cost? Two billion dollars for the Canada Line. Six hundred million dollars for an improved highway to Whistler, [which is] the golden goose that lays a golden egg into our economy every year. A quadrupling in size of the convention centre. Admittedly, that project went over budget. The province got hammered rightly for foolishly managing the construction. But the bottom line is the city has an expanded trade and convention and cruise ship facility and a bunch of new sporting facilities.

"The Pacific Coliseum was renovated. The rinks at UBC were expanded. One's refurbished and one's being added. A big new facility in Richmond. A new curling facility. If you add all the costs up, that's basically the infrastructure. A lot of cost is being picked up by the federal government and international business community. The cost to the city is minuscule. The cost to the province is basically in security and the extra costs they had to put in the trade and conference centre."

On his response to people who feel bamboozled that the original cost of the Games was supposed to be $660 million but is likely now ten times that much:

"I don't say anything to them. Two billion dollars for the Canada Line. Eight hundred million dollars for the conference and trade centre. Those are permanent assets that people in the Vancouver area can enjoy."

On Expo's deficit and how as mayor he dealt with financial liabilities at the time:

"Originally the city was on the hook for 25 per cent of the deficit for Expo, which we were told that would cost us $75 million in capital and $75 million for operating. The deficit was $311 million officially. If you add all in, it was about $600 million.

"The mayor of Montreal Jean Drapeau said the [1976] Olympics have as much chance of a deficit as a man becoming pregnant. I sent him a telegram afterwards congratulating him on not only becoming pregnant, but with quadruplets. Montreal just finished paying off its [$1.5 billion] deficit.

"I ran for mayor and I said were not going to repeat Montreal. We got off the hook for any of the debt. We avoided the Montreal Olympics debacle. We renegotiated the situation financially to take us off of paying 25 per cent for the trade conference centre and cruise ship terminal. That project blossomed from $25 million to $100 million. We agreed we wouldn't cover construction but we'd cover services like waste management, police and fire.

"The city had no financial exposure after we finished the negotiations. The province brought in Lotto 6/49 to pay for Expo debt."

On the protesters sharing the Olympics stage:

"Critics are going to exploit the Olympics for their own political reasons. There's a small number of critics that I don't think are going to be convinced of anything except of their own importance."

On whether or not Vancouver is a world class city:

"I don't like the term. I consider Vancouver a very classy city that I'm very proud of. It shows an inferiority complex to use that term. I'm more interested in being the most sustainable city in the world than being a world class city. It's too much like boosterism. It's like a teenager saying 'Look at me.'

"If you are world class you don't say it. People know it. We've got homeless to house and we've got to complete our transportation system. We're still too wasteful and housing is too expensive. But we've essentially created where cities need to go in the 21st century. We have a game plan to get there."  [Tyee]

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