Vancouver’s PNE says it’s been left out of wage subsidies and grants available to most other businesses and organizations amid the pandemic because it’s municipally owned. (Evanessence Photography)

No PNE? Future of B.C.’s 111-year-old attraction hangs on funding

The PNE has survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but the challenges of COVID have pushed the tourist attraction to the brink, with thousands of jobs now at risk

  • May. 28, 2021 12:00 a.m.

The iconic Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver has survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but the economic challenges of COVID-19 have pushed it to the financial brink, with thousands of jobs now at risk.

If the PNE doesn’t survive the pandemic’s blow, Vancouver stands to lose more than the hundreds of games and rides offered to visitors of Playland.

It’s a sense of community that the amusement park offers visitors, says Katie Dritsas, a 19-year-old carnival worker who spent the last few summers there running games.

“It brings people to Vancouver and makes the city a fun place. There isn’t anywhere else a diverse group of people can enjoy together. The PNE is that place for families.”

Dritsas, a Cranbrook native, recalls hours spent as a family each summer making the drive out west.

Her family is among the 730,000 visitors that attended the amusement park each summer before COVID-19’s spread sparked a global pandemic.

The future of dozens of B.C. tourist attractions from the Abbotsford Air Show to Vancouver Island’s Sunfest festival is unclear as budgets move deeper into the red and PNE organizers call for more government support to stay afloat.

Katie Dritsas, 19, has worked as a carnival worker at PNE’s Playland, the largest employer of youth in British Columbia. (Submitted)

The province’s largest employer of youth

As B.C.’s largest employer of youth, the PNE hires around 4,300 people each summer throughout its 111-year history. More than half of its staff, around 2,500, are youth.

When Dritsas moved to Coquitlam at age 15, she got her first job at Playland.

“I was shy at the time. Working in the games department pushed me out of my comfort zone, in a good way.”

Now a business student at the University of British Columbia, the teen is using her paycheque to fund her studies in September.

“Although, I really want to be back, socializing and making money,” the teen says.

RELATED: B.C. provides $50 million in grants to keep major tourist attractions going

Province announces $1M in support, $7M still needed

On Tuesday (May 18), the province announced a $1-million tourism grant for the PNE – the first emergency aid made available to the non-profit attraction.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said, “We’re going to continue to work with both the city and the PNE and, of course, other attractions across the province, but this was designed for the PNE to make the application.”

However, the money isn’t enough for an event that generates $200 million annually for the economy, says CEO Shelley Frost, because the non-profit is also responsible for the 114-acre municipal park that hosts Playland, Pacific Coliseum and Agrodome.

Hastings Park includes hundreds of thousands of square feet of buildings still in use by the community and several sports fields, a horse racing track, gardens, bike trails, and a skateboard park. The PNE pays for the electricity, water, and maintenance costs of these facilities.

The fair is already $8 million in debt and projections have that figure climbing to $16 million by 2022.

“If it doesn’t bankrupt us, it will change us forever – in a negative way,” Frost says.

People wear face masks while riding the wooden roller coaster at Playland amusement park at the Pacific National Exhibition. (Darryl Dyck)

Excluded from federal aid programs

The PNE has been left out of wage subsidies and grants available to most other businesses and organizations amid the pandemic because it’s a municipally owned entity.

By definition, the attraction wasn’t eligible for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), even though Frost said they were encouraged by several B.C. politicians to apply.

It’s due to the “misconception that because the PNE is owned by a municipality, it has less urgent needs, said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

“No other support programs, including the federal wage subsidy, take into account the owner of the applicant when making funding decisions.”

After being granted $4.1-million in CEWS aid by the federal government, Frost says the funds were placed in a restricted bank account on the recommendation of an accountant.

“As soon as someone from Canada Revenue Agency examines our application more closely, they could ask us to pay it back and fine us even more because we are considered ineligible for the benefit.”

The PNE has survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but the challenges of COVID have pushed it to the brink, with thousands of jobs now at risk. (PNE)

Other tourist attractions receive help from the feds

Frost questions why other Canadian tourist attractions, including Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) and Calgary Stampede, receive millions in emergency federal aid amid the pandemic.

Granville Island, comprised of 300 Vancouver businesses and owned by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, has received a total of $22 million in emergency federal aid.

The Calgary Stampede, owned by North American Midway, was granted $1 million in 2020 to pay its employees after applying for CEWS on top of other federal grants.

Governed by an agricultural non-profit agency, the CNE is also eligible for a loan from the federal government.

‘Three levels of government need to come together’

The only other assistance the PNE has received is from the City of Vancouver, which has been extending its growing line of credit with a bank.

It’s also promised more capital funding in the coming years towards projects that support the event, though none of the funds go directly towards paying off the amusement park’s growing debt.

B.C. Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said, “all three levels of government need to come together to support the PNE, which is an iconic attraction in B.C.”

Out of the federal government’s $1-billion tourism recovery budget, $400 million has been earmarked for festivals and events.

COVID was stressful enough, PNE CEO Frost pointed out, “But seeing opportunities made available that I can’t use to help our organization has made it one of the toughest years to date.

“We had three of our best years on record leading into COVID. We were growing, redeveloping our amphitheaters to bring in more concerts, but this puts all of that in jeopardy.”

– with files from Canadian Press

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