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The PNE is a tradition we must all preserve

PNE in Vancouver.
PNE in Vancouver. Getty Images

When it comes to job creation, governments at all levels love to point to various infrastructure  projects that cost billions of dollars and do indeed create a lot of jobs.

But there’s an annual event in Vancouver that may not commonly be viewed as a job creation vehicle, even though it has created hundreds of thousands of jobs over time and has injected a huge amount of money into the local economy.

I’m referring, of course, to the Pacific National Exhibition and its annual fair, which is currently underway.

I’ve written before about the importance of the PNE and how it is a tradition that we must hang onto, not simply because it’s a fun entertainment forum, but also because of its importance to the economy and because it creates a sense of community we are in danger of losing.

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Various people have recently talked  about the “hollowing out” of Vancouver and its environs, as expensive real estate is pushing people away from the city. The PNE  fair’s spirit is in stark contrast to that narrative.

The fact the annual fair has lasted this long is impressive and, in some ways, surprising. After all, it is a bit of an anachronism, a throwback to an era where life was enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.

But it appears the experience of throwing a plastic ring on a pop bottle to win a stuffed animal, or riding a thrill ride, or viewing huge cows or miniature goats still seems able to compete with video games and other forms of more modern entertainment.

Indeed, the average attendance over the past 10 years has hovered around 800,000 people (it fell off significantly last year, largely due to lousy weather), which speaks to its popularity.

For many, the fair unites generations. Many residents’  fondest memories are associated with it: that first ride on the wooden roller coaster, that first taste of candy floss and for many, the first encounter with farm animals.

There are also those memorable events associated with the fair: the concerts by the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. All those B.C. Lions games when Empire Stadium still existed, to say nothing of the Landy-Bannister epic minute mile race during the 1954 British Empire Games.

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Whether it’s the sights and sounds of the midway, or the livestock barns, or the many unique food opportunities (I’ll pass on the bacon-flavored candy floss, thank you), the experience stays with you, and it’s one to cherish as time goes on.

The economic numbers are impressive: about 3,600 direct employees (this number swells to more than 9,000 when you include exhibitors and concessionaires).  And the fair generates about $58 million in economic activity, and contributes about $25 million in taxes.

But perhaps the PNE’s biggest economic impact is on young people. About 2,000 of those 3,600 employees are youth, and they are paid comparatively well (they also make more money working the fair than they do working regular jobs because many work longer days and compile a nice pile of cash to start the school year).

I speak from experience, having worked 10 straight fairs, some of which contributed tremendously to post-secondary studies.  I worked on the midway, along with hundreds of other young people, and we worked so much we didn’t have time to spend money, so it was easy to save money.

At some point, however, the PNE’s future may end up in the hands of government. It is the only major fair in North America that does not receive a government subsidy, and one has to wonder whether that may have to be revisited at some point.

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Changing weather patterns has the PNE management considering changing the fair’s dates. This is potentially problematic, as any change could impact other local fairs, particularly ones with agricultural components.

But the fact changing the date is even being considered shows the serious challenges the PNE faces. It would be irresponsible for any government to let this grand institution falter in any way.

In the meantime, support one of the more fun, and regular, job creation projects in B.C.. It’s been going strong for more than 100 years, so go visit the fair!

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.