How a city convention centre can resemble a 'fast ferry'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 July, 2007, 12:00am


As big as four city blocks, built over both land and water, the expanded Vancouver convention centre is a building that reminds some of a ferry.

Not just any ferry, mind you, but the fast ferries that brought down the New Democratic Party government that dominated provincial politics in the 1990s.

A quick recap: former provincial premier Glen Clark wanted to bring in fast ferries to revive British Columbia's shipbuilding industry. He vowed that the total costs would be C$210 million (HK$1.57 billion) but they ended up at C$460 million. The NDP had been in power in the province for a decade, but when the issue lost them the 2001 election to the Liberals, it was the worst defeat in the province's history.

In British Columbia, any government project that goes over budget and takes longer to complete than originally planned is now referred to as a 'fast ferry'. The label has now been attached to the Liberals' convention centre expansion.

Last week, Tourism Minister Stan Hagen delivered the bad news - the convention centre's expansion, originally projected to cost C$500 million, has encountered massive cost overruns and may cost nearly C$900 million.

Organisers for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games have had to deal with similar problems, requiring a bailout from the provincial and the federal governments after meeting higher-than-expected construction costs.

'We went through a phase and we're now passing the baton on to a new phase,' said Mr Hagen, describing the expansion as one of Canada's most complex construction projects. 'The cost of not building it would be far greater.'

The ballooning costs were attributed to bigger bills for construction, materials and the paperwork, such as insurance and permits required for what is the biggest construction site in Vancouver.

Mr Hagen said the expansion would allow the province to capitalise on the lucrative convention business. Without the expanded facility, the province would lose 29 of the 54 conventions booked through 2011, worth C$1 billion in economic benefits.

The revamped convention centre will create 7,500 jobs and is projected to have paid for itself within 11 years. The expansion will triple the centre's capacity and will house the world's media during the Winter Olympics.

The NDP was quick to voice scepticism that the latest cost estimate of C$883 million figure would be final. Harry Bains, a party critic of the project, said the government had already made four other cost predictions, and the latest was a clear display of 'mismanagement and incompetence.'

A lot is at stake, but the government finds itself tied to a project that could anger voters enough to lose the Liberals the next election.

For the moment, a booming provincial economy is proving a popularity lifeline for the Liberals. Indeed, at about the same time that Mr Hagen was delivering his dire predictions for the convention centre, Finance Minister Carole Taylor was announcing that the province is pocketing a record surplus of C$4.1 billion, C$700 million more than originally forecast in the last budget.

But British Columbia, which relies heavily on exporting its natural resources, will be particularly vulnerable to the rising Canadian dollar, which hit a 30-year high last week, and a predicted slowdown in Asian demand for its supplies.

It might be made of concrete and glass, but look at it from the wrong angle and the convention centre's similarity to a ferry is getting hard to deny.