Opinion: PNE should be restored as a BC crown corporation to ensure a strong future

May 6 2021, 2:58 pm

If there ever was a case for bringing back the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) under the fold of the provincial government, the organization’s dire financial situation laid out plainly during a press conference last week is it.

The not-for-profit organization that operates the PNE says it is currently $8 million in debt from more than a year of facility closures and event cancellations, and they are expecting this figure to rise to $15 million by the end of 2021 from more of the same limited operations.

Plans to partially open Playland last weekend were pushed to later this month at the earliest due to prevailing health safety concerns, and yesterday they confirmed the cancellation of the 2021 Fair as they could not make the numbers work — not even with a downsized event.

Revenue from facility rentals have taken a huge hit as well, given that events are now virtually non-existent.

To reduce the haemorrhage on their reserves, they resorted last year to laying off nearly all of their unionized staff and half of management.

Even if the PNE is able to survive for another year of difficult conditions, it would take at least 15 years for them to pay off this level of debt, but with the great impact of reducing the level of investments on programming. Reducing these investments that bring the masses to the events held at Hastings Park would surely send the PNE into a vicious cycle of a downward spiral for its long-term revenue outlook.

There was much reason to be optimistic over a very bright future for the PNE, up until March 2020. The organization was making all the right moves to secure its future.

PNE Amphitheatre

Artistic rendering of the potential “best scenario” concept for a new PNE Amphitheatre. (PNE)

Prior to the pandemic’s onset, the PNE enterprise’s primary impetus was to initiate the renewal of its facilities to generate more revenue for its long-term viability, and meet the latent demand in this growing region that can be expected from offering expanded and improved attractions and programming.

PNE was ready to advance its plans to build a new 10,000-seat covered outdoor amphitheatre to enable the hosting of year-round events, effectively boosting its revenue from facility rentals. This plan was previously set for Vancouver City Council’s review last summer.

At last, Playland was set to receive a drastic makeover that would evolve the dated amusement park into a theme park with new rides, attractions, and amenities. The footprint of Playland would also grow from its current size of 15 acres to 22 acres.

PNE Playland expansion

Early concept for the renovation and expansion of Playland at Hastings Park. (PNE)

All phases of Playland’s transformation were scheduled to reach completion before the end of this decade, and in 2019 the Corkscrew roller coaster was removed in preparation for the expansion work to come.

Over the long term, the PNE was also looking to renovate its 100,000 sq ft Livestock building for more diverse programming uses, and construct a new 150,000 sq ft underground convention and exhibition hall in the area between Pacific Coliseum and Agrodome.

The repurposed and expanded indoor exhibition spaces would effectively rewind some of the functional space the PNE lost two decades ago, which put it on a far weaker foundation for expansion and strong programming.

Between 1997 and 2001, the City of Vancouver demolished about 200,000 sq ft of indoor exhibition space — the BC Pavilion, Pure Foods Building, Showmart, and Poultry Building — to make way for the Sanctuary lake, Italian Gardens, and skatepark. This deconstruction of the facilities occurred during a period when there was an expectation that the PNE and Playland would find a new home beyond Hastings Park.

At the time, for much of its history, the PNE was owned by the provincial government and operated as a crown corporation, but its site was on city-owned land through a long-term lease.

In the 1990s, there was a drive by the provincial government to relocate the PNE as its lease was up, and the municipal government was more interested in turning the site into a green space for locals than retaining the historically significant regional entertainment destination.

Sites considered for the new PNE include Burns Bog in Delta, and an industrial site on the Fraser River waterfront near the Pattullo Bridge in Surrey. The provincial government went so far as to acquire the Surrey site.

playland pne hastings park may 2020

Closed Playland gates within the PNE at Hastings Park, May 2020. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

By 1999, the city began to reverse its position on the PNE, with surveys performed at the time showing that nearly 87% of residents did not want the PNE to relocate.

A change in provincial government in the early 2000s contributed to the direction to dissolve the PNE as a crown corporation, and an agreement was reached in 2003 to transfer its ownership to the municipal government and allow the PNE to remain at its historic location.

The City of Vancouver assumed control of the PNE in 2004, and it was reorganized as a not-for-profit organization governed by a board of directors of nine members comprised largely of municipal representation, including one city councillor as the chair, the Vancouver Park Board general manager as the vice-chair, and three city employees.

The early 2000s was a real turning point for the PNE. With so much functional space already demolished, the Fair became a far smaller annual affair without the same level of pomp and grandeur; the reduced footprint fit for turning over into events also meant fewer revenue opportunities for reinvestment for more and higher quality programming.

pne fair nightly fireworks 1990s

Nightly fireworks during the Fair at the PNE in the 1990s. (PNE)

pne parade

PNE Fair opening day parade on East Hastings Street, 1956. (City of Vancouver Archives)

For example, it is currently difficult to imagine the Fair ending every night with a full-scale fireworks spectacular. This tradition ended due to safety and logistical issues, shortly after the greening of a major section of the park that resulted in the Sanctuary. The fireworks were replaced with a pyrotechnical stage performance, but with the exception of the centennial celebrations in 2010 that too was repeatedly downsized over the years.

The PNE’s direct reach beyond Hastings Park also became smaller after the crown corporation held its final opening day parade in 1995, which was a real public signal to the start of the period of downsizing and uncertainty over the PNE’s home. For over six decades, hundreds of thousands of people lined the massive parade route along East Hastings Street between downtown Vancouver and the fairgrounds, making it one of the largest events in the region.

A year prior to the final opening day parade, city council reached a decision that ordered the PNE to vacate Hastings Park in 1996. This deadline was later pushed by subsequent city councils who extended the lease almost on a year-to-year basis until the ownership transfer.

But it was not until 2010 that the PNE had a firm idea of how it would co-exist with encroaching green space in Hastings Park, when city council approved the Hastings Park/PNE Master Plan. The PNE is responsible for the maintenance costs of this green space.

PNE Fair

PNE Fair in 2019. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Moving forward, the future of the PNE needs to be not just about weathering through the latter half of the pandemic’s duration, but also assurances on its ability to realize its plans for renewal and expansion within its historic footprint at Hastings Park.

The municipal government says it has been the backstop for the PNE’s financial crisis to date; however, it has strongly suggested that it is not prepared to go any further.

The PNE has been seeking emergency operating funding from the federal and provincial governments since last year. To date during the crisis, the PNE has received zero funding from senior governments, even though the Calgary Stampede, Cloverdale Rodeo, and BC AgriFair have all received financial support.

The Calgary Stampede, also a not-for-profit organization but independent of government ownership, receives a major annual subsidy to support the development of quality programming — a testament to the sheer economic and cultural significance of the annual event to Calgary’s identity. Alberta’s provincial government provided $7.1 million to the Stampede in 2019, and a reduced amount of $6 million even in 2020.

As an entity owned by a municipal government, the PNE has been unable to access federal assistance programs.

pne playland

An aerial view of Playland. (PNE)

Based on last week’s press conference, the PNE and city’s focus on seeking help has turned to the provincial government, with an urgent plea of a one-time funding assistance of $8 million.

Fulfilling this request to the specified amount should be considered the bare minimum of the show of support expected from the provincial government.

In BC, public investments into big impact cultural, entertainment, and museum institutions have historically been quite lean compared to counterparts in Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, as government activity in this province tends to take a distanced approach from many of the non-for-profit organizations that operate these attractions. As a result, these organizations and the work they do for the public good are taken for granted.

The Vancouver Aquarium, Science World, and the PNE — all of these organizations should share the commonality of being considered as “too big to fail.” But they all have had an existential crisis over the past year.

Without any further financial support from senior governments, not-for-profit Ocean Wise Conservation Association was forced to sell Vancouver Aquarium to Atlanta-based Herschend Enterprises, a zoological and theme park company best known for Dollywood.

Science World has repeatedly made it clear that its situation has put the attraction and its educational outreach programs at great risk.

On the other hand, the Royal BC Museum in Victoria continues to thrive, even under pandemic conditions. Like all attractions, the museum’s attendance is of course significantly down, but just last month the museum opened a major self-produced exhibit that explores the biology of orcas, with a full-size whale skeleton as the centrepiece.

The Royal BC Museum enjoys a “too big to fail” foundation under the umbrella of the provincial government, as it operates as a crown corporation.

Under the provincial government’s direction, the museum is also in expansion mode; in September 2020, the provincial government announced the construction of a new satellite museum facility in Colwood near Victoria, and planning has not wavered on the redevelopment and expansion of the main museum complex next to the legislature.

BC Place Stadium and the Vancouver Convention Centre are not on the brink either, as they are owned by the provincial government and operated by crown corporation Pavco.

Playland PNE

Playland amusement park at PNE. (Shutterstock)

Bringing the PNE back under the stronger umbrella of the provincial government, as a crown corporation, would be a step forward to reconcile the series of mistakes made by multiple governments at the turn of the century, protect the cultural and entertainment institution from the pandemic’s continued economic impacts, and provide the PNE team with the resources to enable what they do best.

The PNE has faced and overcome other periods of crisis in its 111-year history, including the Great Depression and both world wars. The first Fair after the Second World War occurred in 1947, and it was documented to be the largest Fair yet at the time — a turning point from a local-based event before the war to post-war aspirations to be the largest event of its kind west of Toronto.

To mirror the post-war revival, rather than the current preoccupation over merely survival, the PNE should instead be in a position of greater strength — a renewal and expansion for a post-pandemic cultural renaissance in BC. Reorganizing the not-for-profit organization under a crown corporation would also potentially better allow for the PNE to pursue its expansion and renewal projects, perhaps even in a more expedited timeline.

Playland PNE

Artistic rendering of the Playland redevelopment project. (PNE)

The PNE is undeniably deeply entrenched into the fabric of the community.

Each year, it generates $200 million in economic impact into the region and drives nearly 200,000 tourism visits to the Lower Mainland.

It is also the largest employer of youth in BC, with the PNE responsible for 4,300 direct jobs and 9,500 direct and indirect jobs. Many of these positions are low-barrier entry level jobs to highly skilled trades, making it the largest employer of youth in BC, and a first employer of a high percentage of new Canadians.

My first job in high school was not at the PNE, but I do recall colourful stories of classmates manning the carnival attractions at Playland.

Throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, during my youth, the Fair was an annual summertime tradition for my family — and I would imagine it would be the same for many others, even after so many years since its heyday.

According to a 2020 survey by the City of Vancouver, 95% of people agree that BC needs an organization like the PNE to bring family events and entertainment to Metro Vancouver, 94% agree that the PNE is an important civic and BC institution, 90% agree that the PNE makes a valuable economic contribution to the region, and 97% agree that the role the PNE plays in youth employment and training is vital.

The PNE’s economic, employment, and tourism impact alone makes this a sound reinvestment for the provincial government — a PNE that returns as a crown corporation, and is supported by an ongoing annual provincial subsidy, just like the Stampede, for not only a guaranteed future but a strong one.

playland pne

Model of the concept for the Playland redevelopment. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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