Monday, July 07, 2003

Start fighting for real Olympic gold
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA -- OK, enough celebrating (or moaning).
Now it's time for all British Columbians to figure out how the Olympics can work for them.
That's especially true for communities outside Vancouver and Whistler, both already guaranteed huge benefits from Games spending. But it should also be a key challenge for everyone -- housing advocates, arts buffs, small business, First Nations -- who wants to stake a claim on some of the touted Olympic benefits.
And just as importantly, it should be a priority for the Liberals if they want to reap the hoped-for political and economic benefits from the multi-billion-dollar project.
Nobody was celebrating the victory more than the Liberals, who hope for an economic and psychological boost from the Games.
That can happen, but it's going to take a serious government effort to ensure that the Games aren't another example of the regions paying the taxes, and the big city getting the benefits.
Support for the Olympics is already tepid outside the Lower Mainland. A pre-Christmas poll found that about 60 per cent of those living in the Lower Mainland thought their region would benefit from the Olympics, but only 30 per cent of those in the rest of B.C. thought their communities would see any benefits.
Their concern is warranted. Vancouver and Whistler know what they're getting. Most of the $1.3 billion in Games spending identified by Auditor General Wayne Strelioff last year will go to those communities, for new facilities and improvements to the Sea-to-Sky Highway.
They'll also get a new transit line to the airport and an expanded convention centre.
So far, municipalities across the rest of the province have been invited to apply for a share of $40 million for Olympic Live Sites in their communities. They're grumbling that the money seems pretty mingy compared to the snowstorm of dollar bills settling on the Lower Mainland. It's a legitimate complaint.
Organizers point to intangible benefits --everything from increased tourism to foreign investment. They claim economic benefits of $6 billion to $10 billion.
But the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives -- two groups that rarely agree -- have both questioned the validity of the claims, noting that they are based on unreliable guesses and assumptions.
That doesn't mean spinoff benefits won't exist. But the people of the Lower Mainland and Whistler will be able to point to tangible benefits -- a rink, a road, housing.
The rest of the province is relying on ghostly economic benefits.
Those will have to be fought for.
Strelioff's review of Games planning was generally positive. But he warned that good luck and good management would be needed to keep costs on budget.
And good luck, a favourable economy and excellent management and marketing will be needed to reap the economic benefits. Strelioff quoted a consultant who did the economic impact studies for the organizing committee. "These benefits will not materialize automatically," they said. "They must be earned by a focused, adequately funded and skillfully executed marketing program."
That's the challenge for communities, and the government. It's going to take vigilance, creativity, will, money and political pressure to make sure that every decision taken over the next seven years considers how the Games can have the greatest benefits for all British Columbians. Every activity that can be pushed outside Vancouver and Whistler, should be. Every effort has to be made to ensure that the underlying key message promotes the province, not the city and the resort.
The barriers to tourism and economic growth in the rest of the province have to get the same priority that will now be given to improving the Sea to Sky Highway and the new Vancouver transit line. And some of the leadership has to come from Liberal MLAs, who should be insisting on a formal, public process for driving regional Games benefits.
Enough talking about the Heartland. It will take action and commitment to deliver any benefits from the Games.
Footnote: The Liberals have a lot resting on the Games' success. They're unlikely to be threatened in the next election, less than two years off. The vote after that will be held in 2009, less than a year before the Games. The success of the project could end up being a key issue in the campaign.

The Liberals are letting down children and families
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - There's not much to celebrate in the Liberals' decision to cut spending on helping vulnerable children and adults.
The cuts have been scaled back. But it's still difficult to see any real plan behind the decision to cut support by $185 million - about 11 per cent. And that means kids who depend on us, not by choice, are at risk.
Children and Families Minister Gordon Hogg unveiled the cuts at a televised cabinet meeting. Afterwards he defended $70 million in cuts slated for next year, saying his staff assured him that the cuts could be made safely.
But then Hogg made the same claims for the plan abandoned earlier this month, which would have seen a total of $360 million in cuts. That plan turned out to be based on bad information and wrong assumptions, he told cabinet.
That's what virtually everyone outside government has said all along. And it is what they continue to say about the current cuts.
Hogg did little to ease concerns.
The biggest savings are to come from reduced spending on services provided by agencies, including $5.7-million cut to funding for agencies that support vulnerable youth and struggling families. The money is supposed to go to new, better programs. But those programs don't exist, and the change was flagged as a potential health and safety risk in a ministry report to cabinet.
So were other measures that remain part of the government's cost-cutting plan.
Ministry staff may be over-cautious, or the concerns they raised addressed.
But Hogg didn't inspire confidence that a plan is in place. He said no group homes will close, while briefing papers said homes will be close and about 200 long-term residents will be moved. He said money will be saved because communities will develop the capacity to support children in their homes. But asked how capacity would be built while the ministry is cutting 20 per cent of its staff and squeezing contract agencies, he suggested Rotary Clubs and volunteers will play a larger role.
That's a fine goal. But to base a spending cut on the emergence of volunteers is reckless.
it always looks easy on paper, chopping a million here and there and hoping people can cope.
But these cuts affects people who rely on us. The government plans to cut $1.1 million - about 25 per cent - from a fund that helps foster parents with extraordinary expenses. (This was another cut red-flagged as a health and safety risk in the ministry report.) Some foster parents are abusing the system, he says, and some children are getting things in care they couldn't get at home.
But I've talked to too many foster parents about how hard it is to get the money for a grad dress or summer camp. Cutting the amount available by about $100 child just shifts that cost on to foster parents, or penalizes children.
The Liberals have taken positive steps. Moving to a new regional model of service delivery, with separate aboriginal and non-aboriginal authorities, makes sense. The concept of emphasizing early intervention and support for troubled families is morally and fiscally sound.
But restructuring while attempting to achieve unreasonable spending cuts is dangerous, and the potential victims are the people who have the least ability to defend themselves and the most to lose. They deserve better.
Gordon Campbell used to think so too, regularly calling on the NDP to increase funding for the ministry, warning that its work is too important to be threatened by short-term, short-sighted spending limits.
The government had options. The best would have been to cancel the next round of cuts, leaving the money in the budget. The ministry and the new agencies could push on with the plans. But if things had taken longer than planned, or the threat to children and vulnerable adults had proved real, the needed funding would be there.
Footnote: The government doesn't have money to maintain services for children in foster care. It does have enough money for an ad campaign, including full-page newspaper ads, offering a misleading defence of its education funding policies. In opposition the Liberals rightly attacked using tax dollars to sell government policies; now they're writing the cheques.

Barkerville needs more time in government hands
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I rolled into Barkerville the fall before last, swooping up the winding road from Quesnel. It was afternoon, with the low sun fighting dark clouds, and winning, and six inches of new snow on the main street.
The place was magic, a window into the incredibly difficult and risky times that shaped this province. I didn't feel like I was looking at the way things used to be, I felt like I was walking through that time.
We never saw more than a handful of other people. Wonderful for us, but even for October an indication that perhaps more can be done to attract people to the heritage site.
That's one of the things the government hopes to achieve by handing about 15 heritage sites, like Barkerville, to contractors, either companies or communities or non-profits.
The bigger goal, critics argue, is to save money by cutting funding for the sites. And in the process regional economies will be damaged and heritage put at risk, they say.
There's no right answer. Some heritage sites can be easily turned over to a private contractor or a local historical society. If the scale is small, the responsibilities relatively straightforward and the opportunity to increase revenue exists then contracting out the operation can make sense. Emily Carr House in Victoria and others across the province have been privately operated successes for years.
But the experience with Barkerville shows how the risks and problems mount when the sites are bigger. And it should be enough to make the government go slow in its plans to get out of the heritage site business.
The Barkerville experiment has the region very concerned, with good reason.
The province called for proposals in May, seeking an operator. No companies were interested - the chance for profit just isn't there. The District of Wells looked hard at taking over, at least in part because Barkerville is vital to the local economy. But the district has also now dropped out, saying that even with spending cuts and admission increases they would lose $250,000 a year on the site.
Now Communities Minister George Abbott says the government will try and reach out to other operators, and may go back to Wells with an offer of more money. The goal is still to have Barkerville off the government's hands by next spring.
The government should abandon that timeline, and the target of short-term savings. The fact that nobody who has looked hard at the potential costs and benefits has been willing to take on Barkerville is a warning. Rushing to find someone - anyone - to take over is too great a risk.
The obvious threat is to heritage values. Barkerville is a remarkable living museum, a chance for us to understand what it was like to risk everything to hunt for gold, or to start a new life in a strange land thousands of miles from home. Its 150 buildings and collection of some 300,000 are a treasure that help us understand who we are.
But the economic risk is just as serious. Barkerville's 100,000 visitors a year are an important part of the local economy. Putting that at risk by rushing forward is too dangerous.
Abbott does say the government will keep running the site if it has to, but with a reduced budget. That too is short-sighted.
This isn't all some new problem created by the Liberals. The NDP launched the contracting out process for heritage sites, and cut heritage spending.
The impact of those cuts in creating a pent-up need for major capital improvements is one of the things deterring prospective operators. (A decade ago half-a-dozen people managed the Barkerville collections; that's now down to two.)
Nothing says the government's plan won't work. A well-organized, well-financed group, with a clear mandate for preservation and growth may be found.
But it's not working now. And the uncertainty being created, and the fears of a rushed and short-sighted decision, are hurting the economy.
Footnote: One problem for the Liberals is the lack of models to learn from It's difficult to find any governments that have given up control of major heritage sites like Barkerville. The experiment is being watched - nervously - across Canada.