Nfld. & Labrador

$3M Canada Games spending sparks questions for St. John's councillors

The City of St. John's has set out a spending roadmap to host the Canada Games in 2025, but some people are questioning the plan.

Spending priorities questioned in face of transit cuts, snow-clearing status quo

The Aquarena was originally built for the 1977 Canada Games, and likely would be part of a St. John's bid to host the games in 2025. (CBC)

In the wake of a pledge by the City of St. John's to spend $3 million to support a bid to host the Canada Summer Games in 2025, questions are being raised about that decision and whether such an event could be a success.

On Monday, city councillors voted unanimously in favour of a plan that allots spending over three budget years starting in 2022.

The agreement for future spending comes amid some sharp belt-tightening, with the Metrobus budget slashed by $800,000, and a proposal to increase sidewalk snow clearing denied, as the city continues to struggle with both COVID-19 and financial problems that have been looming for years. 

That contrast has some people wondering about city hall's priorities. 

Ophelia Ravencroft, who ran in the recent Ward 2 byelection, has been vocal about increasing mobility services, like public transit and snow-free sidewalks. She said she isn't opposed to the Canada Games coming to St. John's but she's frustrated to see it approved so easily and quickly.

"We've had to fight so hard to get those things to the front of this conversation, to a legitimate position at all, but the minute an event like this comes up, automatically it's kind of, 'Yes, we'll spend lots, we'll invest in this very heavily,'" she said Thursday.

"I think it shows we understand some things as being economic drivers and not others, and I think that's fundamentally flawed."

Ophelia Ravencroft says investing in public transit is also an economic driver, allowing people to save money on transportation and access stores and jobs easier. (John Gushue/CBC)

Municipal politicians estimate the Games could bring in $80 million to $110 million to the St. John's region. Coun. Dave Lane called it "a smart investment."

"When we look to a significant event that's going to pump money into the economy, into people's pockets, to support businesses and people's livelihoods, a small investment for such a huge gain is something we felt is important for us to do on behalf of residents and businesses in this city," Lane told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Ravencroft doesn't pick apart city hall's estimate that landing the games will be a boost to economy. But, she argues, the ability to ride the bus to work or shop instead of spending money on car insurance or taxis can also free up money to circulate within the city, and that needs to given equal weight.

"We can support economic drivers, but we should support all economic drivers," she said.

An athletic reality check

The city's $3 million is only a portion of what's required to run such a large-scale event. Looking to past Canada Games,  the federal government can be expected to chip in about $40 million to implement the needed athletic infrastructure, said one expert, showing that what the city may pay out could end up only being a drop in the bucket compared with the return.

Bas Kavanagh co-authored a report in 2014 to assess what was needed to host the Games, and how best to prepare. As 2021 approaches, he said there's no way St. John's can meet those recommendations now.

"There's a difference between doing it, and doing it right," he said Friday.

Bas Kavanagh was the author of a report done for the provincial government in 2014 titled Medals Matter, a road map for a successful hosting of the Canada Games. He says most of the recommendations were not followed. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Kavanagh pointed to a laundry list of needed fixes: baseball and soccer pitches like the King George V Field need upgrades. The Swilers Rugby Club, the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Centre and some Memorial University facilities require work, and rowing and cycling infrastructure also needs to be addressed.

Along with physical buildings, his report recommended increasing supports to increase athlete performance. Ideas like a committee that monitors training programs and provides resources such as coaching skill upgrades, physiotherapists and massage therapists have not materialized.

A lack of support translates into athletic standings, he said, leaving he province's athletes underprepared for what may come in competition.

"We've been pretty pathetic performing at the Canada Games. And the opportunity to host, as the task force looked at it, would've been a good opportunity to get the athletes ready to compete and actually be competitive," Kavanagh said.

"But right now without those recommendations being followed, we wouldn't perform very well. And we wouldn't perform very well in 2025."

Kavanagh said the province needs to act swiftly on that report from six years ago.

"Every day that we lose is going to impact performance in 2025," he said.

Meanwhile, with the city's bid for the event now approved, the Canada Games Council will now review it. A public announcement of its decision is expected in February.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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