Vancouver says PNE needs $8M from province in order to survive

·3 min read
Two people walk through Playland at the PNE in Vancouver on July 10, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Two people walk through Playland at the PNE in Vancouver on July 10, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The City of Vancouver says the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic threaten to shutter the long-running Pacific National Exhibition, if the non-profit organization isn't able to secure emergency funding from the province.

"The outlook is so dire that the PNE as we now know and love it could end," said Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

He said the 111-year-old exhibition stands to lose nearly $15 million after closures throughout the last year and it requires $8 million in aid.

The exhibition's management says it would take more than 15 years to eliminate the forecasted deficit, jeopardizing the PNE's ability to organize events.

Acting president Stacy Shields says the exhibition has survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but the challenges of COVID-19 have pushed it to the brink, putting thousands of jobs at risk.

Andrew Leger, the president of the CUPE local union that represents most PNE workers, says the annual fair is B.C.'s single-largest employer of youth.

"For many, it's their first job — work that helps pay for their education or even gets their family established in Canada,'' he said in a statement.

The 2020 PNE was changed by organizers into a drive-thru experience, with guests taking in many of the traditional sights, sounds and snacks of the fair from the comfort — and safety — of their cars.

A dog jumps over an obstacle while guests watch from their vehicles during the 2020 PNE, which was heavily modified to allow some traditional attractions to be experienced in a physically distanced way.
A dog jumps over an obstacle while guests watch from their vehicles during the 2020 PNE, which was heavily modified to allow some traditional attractions to be experienced in a physically distanced way. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Complicated ownership structure

Ownership of the PNE was transferred from the provincial government to the City of Vancouver in 2004.

While it's a separate non-profit organization with a board of directors, they are appointed by the city. Hastings Park and all the facilities the PNE uses are completely owned by the city as well.

Because of that structure, grants and other funds available to other festival-based organizations haven't been available to the PNE.

Stewart says the city has been extending the PNE's "ever-growing line of credit,' but it needs provincial support if it's going to continue hosting music, cultural, sports and other events each year.

"We're seeing through COVID all kinds of one-off investments in operations that would never really get this type of funding," he argued.

In a statement, the provincial government pointed out it had given all municipalities, including Vancouver, emergency funding that could be used for this sort of expense.

But it didn't close the door on additional help.

"I am proud that B.C.'s Budget 2021 committed an additional $100 million for tourism recovery, which includes support for major tourism attractions," said Melanie Mark, the minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport, in a statement.

"We're working hard to develop the program parameters for anchor attractions and get these funds out the door as soon as possible. I look forward to having more to say in the coming days."

Earlier this week, the PNE announced the opening date of Playland would be postponed from this weekend until late May over concerns it would attract out-of-town visitors while travel restrictions are still in effect.