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Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

GARY MASON

Hosting a world’s fair is worth the gamble Add to ...

When it comes to hosting a world-scale event in Canada, the spectre of the Montreal Olympics and the immortal words of former mayor Jean Drapeau continue to haunt any deliberations.

“The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” Mr. Drapeau famously said about his city’s plans to host the 1976 Summer Games.

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The event would end up costing Montreal more than $1-billion, a debt that took the city 30 years to pay off. When the dimension of the deficit first became evident, then-Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt couldn’t resist sending Mr. Drapeau a telegram.

“Congratulations on making medical history,” it read.

We mention this in light of the city of Toronto’s designs on holding a World Expo in 2025. The push to host the event is being led by Mayor Rob Ford, who, despite a plethora of distractions of late, appears determined to clear the significant hurdles before him in a bid to put on the global exhibition.

The most immediate obstacle is the decision by Ottawa to withdraw from the Bureau of International des Expositions by the end of this year. The bureau is the governing body in charge of overseeing the selection process for host countries. The federal government wants to terminate its membership in the bureau as a cost-savings measure. If it does, that would end any chance of Toronto – or any other Canadian city – ever hosting an Expo.

Mr. Ford wants Ottawa to hold off until a feasibility study can be done on the potential economic benefits of the plan. One that was done in 2006, painted a fairly rosy picture of the event’s prospective upside. These things often look good on paper. Then all hell breaks loose when jackhammers meet the ground.

That said, these affairs can be a boon for a city. Vancouver has benefited enormously from two of them – Expo 86 and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Both became transformative moments in the city’s history. The infrastructure legacy is impressive; everything from arenas to rapid transit lines to elegant condo towers have direct links to both events.

As is often the nature with these things, how much they each ended up costing taxpayers is something that will be forever debated. The B.C. government said Expo finished with a small, $300-million deficit while creating thousands of jobs and pouring hundreds of millions into the provincial economy. The Olympics broke even, although various levels of government contributed $5-billion to infrastructure costs.

Still, by most fair measures, and contrasted with other Olympics and other Expos, both were smashing successes. As we’ve seen, here and elsewhere, major events of this description can go sideways in a hurry. Atlanta, Athens, Barcelona, Montreal – the landscape is littered with financial horror stories wrought by poorly executed global extravaganzas.

The common element to the ones that worked is exceptional leadership. While that would seem to go without saying, it’s harder to find than you might imagine.

Billionaire entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison was asked to take over the planning and delivery of Expo 86 when it appeared headed for financial disaster. His focus, determination and business acumen helped right the ship. Similarly, VANOC CEO John Furlong is credited with helping stage one of the most successful Winter Games in Olympic history.

In both cases, the events thrived because of extraordinary leadership.

Is hosting a world’s fair a gamble worth taking? That depends on how confident a prospective host city is about mitigating the financial risks. There certainly seems to be a case to be made that Toronto’s neglected port lands could be transformed by a world’s fair in the same way that the ignored shores of False Creek in Vancouver blossomed thanks to Expo and the Olympics.

Beyond the economic benefits that fairs and Olympics can often bring, there are less tangible gains to be had. There is the enormous feeling of pride it can give people; the passion it can stir among citizens. It is worth more than you might think.

Ultimately, Toronto’s bid will depend on whether it can assure Ottawa that it won’t be responsible for any overruns. If it can, I can’t see why the Conservatives wouldn’t co-operate with a bid.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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