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'I was negative about the financial implications,' says Mike Harcourt, looking back at Expo 86

Last Updated May 3, 2016 at 12:06 pm PST

(John Streit, NEWS 1130 Photo)

Mike Harcourt, who was Vancouver's mayor during Expo 86, says he was worried about transit ahead of the fair

Vancouver has drastically changed since Expo 86, says former premier Mike Harcourt

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – This week marks the 30-year anniversary of the opening of Expo 86.

Former premier Mike Harcourt was mayor of Vancouver during the fair. He says he was open to Expo coming to Vancouver until he saw the financial records associated with the event.

“It was horrendously off. I was pretty negative about the financial implications for the city and a few other big issues, like what the heck you’re going to do with the site afterwards.”

He nods to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

“The mayor there at the time said, ‘There’s as much chance of a deficit as a man becoming pregnant’ and he made medical history — he became pregnant with quintuplets, with a $1.2-billion deficit that Montreal just paid off.”

He says Expo 67 was a great success in Montreal, but calls its sites an “eyesore” to this day.

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Harcourt was also worried about transit leading up to Expo 86. “We had a crumbling bus system and nothing else.”

In the end, he says the problems were solved.

“The $600-million deficit we ended up with, the federal government picked up $200 million of that with the billing of the trade conference and cruise ship facility. And the province got rid of the almost $400-million deficit by starting Lotto 649.”

The former premier says the city has drastically changed since before Expo 86.

“I grew up in Vancouver in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, when it was a pretty gray, provincial, Presbyterian town with archaic liquor laws — not too exciting a city. But I think with the stopping of the freeway along our waterfront in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the new council that transformed the inner city and brought in a ‘livable city idea,’ that accelerated with the huge exposure that Expo gave Vancouver — and people saw what an exciting, undiscovered city Vancouver was — I think the world came and stayed.”

LISTEN: Former BC premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt speaks live on NEWS 1130


As for the current state of real estate in the region, Harcourt says, “it’s a tragedy that our young people can’t afford to live in Vancouver.”

“It’s the big issue, aside from finishing our transit system… and affordable child care. The lack of affordable housing for a lot of people — whether they’re poor or professional — is the big issue. I think there’s a variety of solutions from taking action against some of the more venal practices that we’ve been seeing in the paper and you talking about on CKWX and elsewhere [to] getting on with creative approaches to provide affordable housing.”

But he doesn’t see foreign investment as a negative. “I think the investment coming in to build up our high-tech sector, foreign students coming here and staying here with their skills — all these are positives. A negative is when you get greed, fraudulent practices, and absentee owners of neighbourhoods to [lead homes to becoming] empty.”

Overall, he sees Expo 86 as a positive and feels the same about the 2010 Olympics.

“We didn’t get ground down by debt and eyesore sites like Montreal or Athens or other cities that have had these big things. At the end of the day, with the positive publicity that came from Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympics, [we’ve seen a] huge increase in tourism, trade conference and cruise ship activities.”

Harcourt adds a lot of infrastructure that we take for granted was a result of such events. “Like the rapid transit line, like the new Cambie Bridge that the city was able to build, like the fifth of our downtown that Concord Pacific lands is.”

“The same for 2010. We got the second rapid transit line — the Canada Line down Cambie… and we were able to get the $600-million improvement to the highway to Whistler, which is a $2 billion per year tourism golden egg, and a number of sports facilities that came on board.”