Saturday, November 19, 2011



The Canadian National Exhibition, Canada's largest fair  and one of the largest in the world, had another successful run this year.
Not that you would know it from politicians and media.
Despite bad weather on Labour Day weekend, when the Ex expects to get 25% of its total attendance, the Ex had 1.31 million people enjoying themselves on the 192-acre site.
Critics will point out that hundreds of thousands more used to come, but many figures were fibs, fewer people are getting in for free, and the city keeps grabbing off the best buildings and renting them year-round, meaning they're not available for the fair.
The city as landlord runs things through an Exhibition Place board which grabs off the millions in profits that the Ex makes  - more than $8 million in the last decade - screws with the CNE budget, and doesn't protect the Ex against such problems as the Maple Leaf Sports mint that runs the new stadium making it difficult for the Ex to use it.
At the Oct. 20 annual meeting, a new CNE president was elected. Brian Ashton has just retired as a city councillor and was so good that I kept urging him to run for mayor. But the media didn't mention his election  except for small weeklies in his home turf of Scarboro.
I know all about how anonymous the CNE leadership has become. When I was elected CNE president,  the media ignored me too.
The president and general manager were once major figures. Hiram McCallum retired as mayor of Toronto to run the Ex. Presidents included captains of industry like George Cohon of hamburger fame and Oakah Jones of Consumers Gas. Fred Gardiner, Bill Allen and Paul Godfrey, all powerful chairmen over the Toronto regional municipality, dominated Ex politics.
It was Godfrey who teamed with Premier Bill Davis to have the Ex run by two boards, the EP one to be landlord and the CNE one to run the fair.  They did so to avoid politics that would handicap the building of a new home for the  Jays. The team started at the Ex but moved to a costly site with screwed up parking just to avoid city politics.
 So the separation wasn't necessary. Yet we have a chaotic situation where even governors and directors are unclear about who runs what. So the fair, which started life in 1879, is now a tenant in the home it built over the decades.
Thanks to several studies that suggested the provincial money pit known as Ontario Place (OP) be joined to EP, there are quiet talks going on about the Ex's future. Should the CNE be independent of EP? Should there be a new deal between the two? Should the two join OP? Should the old Fort be part of the mix, possibly with the nearby armoury?
I sit on the important CNE committee involved in these talks. However, I do not have a conflict as I write because nothing definite has been decided and my views have been known for years.
I doubt that the public cares. It sounds like a debate about how many bureaucrats can fit on the head of a pin, to rework the old theological conundrum.
Yet the benefits could be huge. Not just in the saving of tax money as all the staff duplication is eliminated but in a better festival centre for entertainment, trade and even education. After all, it is plain that OP must be improved because it has lost its way to such an extent it hasn't even been charging admission. The fair program each year has become richer and more diverse. Just imagine what would happen if the Ex controlled everything and it didn't have to give away all its profits.
An important provincial study suggested that old Fort York be included in any merger of EP and OP. The KPMG study for city council on possible savings in the bewildering maze of operations didn't include the fort but did talk about a 5% saving in a merger of the two places. A piddling estimate because surely it would be more.
This is hardly an easy deal. You just can't take a cleaver and separate the CNE from its landlord because the fair benefits from capital costs covered by the landlord, such as the Coliseum makeover and the building of the huge trade centre. EP also provides equipment and staffing for the Ex, for which the Ex pays a confusing amount.
What I hope is that at the end of the day, participants won't bite into the results as if they were big cones of candy floss to be savoured, then discover there really isn't anything there but a tiny bit of sweetness.

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