Nova Scotia's visitor information centres are a tiny, perfect encapsulation of the budget challenges facing the provincial government.
Public infrastructure built to service yesterday's Nova Scotia has to face the facts of today's Nova Scotia:
- How low does student enrolment have to go before we re-think the location or configuration of a school?
- How low do overnight medical visits have to go before an emergency room is closed for good?
- How low do trips-per-day have to go before we talk seriously about maybe not re-paving that stretch of road?
- And how low do drop-in tourist visits have to go before a VIC closes?
Two of the centres — Digby and Pictou — closed last year.
There are six left: Amherst, Port Hastings, Yarmouth, Peggys Cove, the Halifax Stanfield International Airport and Halifax waterfront. Each is unique.
Of these, the visitor information centres in Amherst and Port Hastings are the most iconic.
You can't miss them. They're sentinels at the New Brunswick and Cape Breton borders — the Cape Breton border is a border of the imagination, and no less real for all that.
We've all stopped at these VICs, even if lately it's only to use the bathroom.
I especially love the Amherst information centre. It's a magnificent spot, looking down over the Tantramar Marshes and the Bay of Fundy. The place is awash in history, with Fort Beausejour in the distance, and the site of Fort Lawrence just down the road. Beaubassin burns in memory.
Families in station wagons
The VICs are symbols, wrapped up in childhood memories, and that's what makes them so politically sensitive.
But budget-crafting politicians have to look at the VICs as they actually are, not as we imagine them in soft-edged dreams.
The Amherst and Port Hastings centres were built in an era when there was no internet and baby boom families piled into the station wagon before hitting the road.
Those days are gone, gone, gone.
People travel differently and plan their travel differently. We all know that to be true, because we do it too.
But once you build infrastructure, jobs follow. A clutch of good seasonal jobs is no small thing in a rural area.
So when somebody in a suit from Halifax says, "We must change with the times," you wonder who's the "we" they're talking about when it's only the local people losing their jobs.
Amherst, for example, out there on the province's periphery, will never benefit from consolidation and centralization.
To make the issue even tougher, the McNeil government is already playing catch-up.
Ideally, the government would have wanted to get its story out first. Lay out the case. Build the story.
Instead, questions were first raised by the union, which represents the VIC staff.
The calls to line up seasonal staff should have gone out by now, and they haven't. It smells fishy, like a decision's been made but not announced.
Then the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia issued a lengthy statement of concern.
To its credit, the association is not exactly opposed to the closure of the VICs but they have legitimate questions: Where's the plan? What comes next?
I was the tourism minister for six months in 2013 and during that time I made a point of visiting all the visitor information centres.
The VIC staff are good people doing good work. That was never the issue.
Of course, some tourists still use the VICs and find them valuable — even essential. There are lots of great anecdotes, from both tourists and operators.
But the question in front of the government is not whether some people still find the VICs useful.
The question is the best use of limited budget dollars.
People might be more reassured if they thought it was all about an efficient reallocation of dollars. It isn't, of course. The dollars might just disappear, another casualty of health care's voracious appetite.
So why not fight to maintain the status quo?
The numbers at Nova Scotia's VICs are falling, but when statistics and anecdotes clash in the public forum, anecdotes almost always win.
We'll probably end up with an ungainly compromise. The VICs will effectively close, but we'll pretend they're still open.
Nobody will be happy.
You can take the same basic dynamic and apply it to health, education, transportation, or anything else that involves infrastructure built for the baby boomers.
We can't go on like this, and yet we do.