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marcus gee

Those who want Toronto to host World Expo 2025 sure have awful timing. The same morning that they held a press conference to urge the city to make a bid for the exposition, Toronto's top civil servant was warning that city hall is heading for a fiscal cliff.

City manager Peter Wallace told Mayor John Tory and the executive committee on Tuesday morning that the "tricks" the city has been using to balance its books won't work forever. "The process of kicking the can down the road will inevitably come to an end," he said.

Toronto already has trouble paying for keeping the potholes filled and the streetcars rumbling, not to mention all the "unmet capital needs," such as public housing repairs and transit maintenance. What a fine time, then, to spend a bundle on a flashy international fair.

No one seems to know for sure yet what it would cost to host the expo, but you can be certain that it wouldn't be cheap. A 2013 Ernst & Young study said it could range from $1-billion to $3-billion, depending on the breaks.

Not to worry, the expo boosters say. As former Ontario premier David Peterson put it, "Don't be frightened about the money." The amount that governments spend on hosting Expo 2025 will be pocket change beside what is gained in economic growth and tax revenue, not to mention the great splash of international publicity for Canada's biggest city. "This not something that is a cost," former mayor Art Eggleton said. "It's something that is an investment that has enormous payback."

When talk like that is flying about, taxpayers should hold tight to their wallets.

Ernst & Young warns that, unlike the Olympics, expos can't make money by selling rights to broadcast the event. No one tunes in to watch people walking through a fake alpine forest at the Austrian pavilion. Its report says an expo "is in effect a regional marketing tool and not a global branding event such as the Olympics. Approximately 95 per cent of the visitors would likely be from Canada or the U.S. A review of expo attendance data from prior expos indicates that international travellers are seldom more than 5 per cent of the total."

The argument that hosting the expo would jump-start development in the Port Lands, a likely site for the event, is suspect, too. There is already a long-standing plan for redeveloping that old waterfront industrial area, including flood-prevention measures and other infrastructure. We don't need an expo to get going on that. We just need governments to come up with the money.

Olympics and other sporting events at least leave some athletic facilities behind – a big aquatic centre and a velodrome, among other things, in the case of last year's Pan American Games. What do you get from expos, which usually feature temporary pavilions in a big fairground?

Mr. Tory is skeptical about the expo idea. A few hours after the boosters made their pitch, he said he wouldn't be "flying the flag in favour" of a bid until he had more information. How much would it cost? Who would pay? Would other governments subtract what they spent on an expo from the amount the city is seeking for other priorities, such as transit expansion and better public housing?

The question with all these megaevents is who is left holding the bag when, as almost always happens, the cost exceeds expectations. Hanover's expo in 2000 lost €1.2-billion ($1.75-billion) when fewer than half of the expected 40 million visitors turned up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has written Mr. Tory a supportive letter about the expo, saying the federal government would "explore next steps" if city council decided to make a bid. That is a dubious comfort.

His letter poked a finger in the eye of the former Conservative government, saying his team was committed to "restoring our country's reputation as an active and constructive partner of the international community." The Tory government withdrew from the Bureau International des Expositions, which handles expo bids.

Expos happen every five years and last up to six months. Last year's was in Milan. The theme was Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. It got 21 million visitors, about half of the 40 million that Toronto supporters expect.

Mr. Tory is right to be cautious.

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