Interview with Mary McNeil, Minister of State for the Olympics

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All smiles: Coleman, Robertson and McNeil get to work on creating new housing has been attracted to the subject of the Olympic and Paralympic Games because of its potential to re-shape the urban landscape, not to mention that it derives its share of controversy. As an effort to learn more about the Games and share it with our readers, we're posting a series of feature reports related to the 2010 Games. Today, we hear from the Honourable Mary McNeil BC's Minister of State for Olympics and ActNow BC, and MLA for Vancouver-False Creek...

From your point of view within government, where do you see where we're at in terms of preparations for the 2010 Games?

We're into the last five months. This is a critical time because you have enough time to do things, but not enough time to make new decisions. So you have to be pretty clear in where you're heading and what you're doing.

For example, we're just in the final throes of choosing someone who's going to develop the BC Pavilion, which is going to be on the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Our goal is to do something a little out of the ordinary [at the Gallery location]. In addition, we're going to be opening up the whole VAG and paying the admission so folks can get in there and experience an impressive showcase of Canadian art. I think it's a good partnership.

In addition we have all the activity taking place down at Robson Square, which in some ways is becoming successful beyond our expectations. We've got the unaccredited media centre which will have at least 24 media outlets with massive global coverage. And as well we'll be hosting bloggers there to provide internet coverage. So we'll have mainstream domestic and international media coverage, as well as web-based media which promises to give a different perspective of the Games.

There's going to be all sorts of activities that the public will want to engage in down at Robson Square. Not only is the GE Ice Rink facility going to be there, but both NBC and CTV will be presenting some of their broadcasts from that location. We'll want it to be a fun location where the public will want to hang out.

The fact NBC will be broadcasting by the skating rink at Robson Square makes me think of their headquarters in 30 Rockefeller Center back in New York City.

Well, you know that's one of the things we want to do with the Robson Square plaza, is make it known to people here and around the province that this is BC's showcase for the Olympics. So we're going to re-open the plaza at the same time we'll be re-opening the GE ice rink at the end of November. And we'll keep it open through the holidays, when we'll hold a Christmas do with the lighting of a tree, a la Rockefeller Center. I think it will be great place to be during those months leading up to the Games.

So a family hops on the Canada Line after dinner, heads down to the rink and straps on some skates?

Exactly. And we're working with Sears and some of the other buildings surrounding the square to project images on large screens, so it will be quite a spectacle.

What do you see as the lasting legacies of the Games for Vancouver?

Looking beyond the beautiful new Games venues we've got, which, if you haven't been to Hillcrest yet, you absolutely have to see it.

Actually they had an open house one evening there last winter. The crowds were huge.

What's great about that facility is how it's merging three facilities into one – the aging curling centre, Riley Park Community Centre and Percy Norman Pool. Of course, we've got the Canada Line, and the improved transportation to Whistler and Pemberton.

However, I think it's the pride we'll feel after the Games. Almost what I describe as the Expo 86 effect. Expo changed our city. The Games are going to be around for a shorter time-frame than Expo 86, but they represent a bigger boost for BC and Vancouver at a time when the world economy, let's face it, sucks.

I think one of the greatest legacies will be the Inner City Inclusive Commitments, where we work with VANOC, the city, and the Federal government to tackle some of the social issues here. With or without the Olympics, we have an issue with homelessness. And while some are prepared to blame the Games for our social problems, I see the Olympics have been a catalyst to help fix some of these things because we have to deal with them.

The biggest thing in all this for me is the Four Host First Nations Partnership headed up by a really neat guy named Tewanee Joseph, and the fact that we've got the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations all together working with VANOC to put on a great Games. They're true partners.

If you've driven by on Georgia Street, right in front of the Queen E Theatre there's a big wooden structure taking shape there. That's going to be the Four Host First Nations Pavilion, which is going to be spectacular. One of the discussions we're having right now is where should that structure go after the Games are over. I think it really needs to go somewhere it can represent the legacy of the partnership.

How do you see the Province capitalizing on economic spin-offs from the Games?

A lot of times what happens with these kinds of events is that organizers focus on the event itself and not what comes after. Right now I'm working with Iain Black, the Minister for Small Business, and Naomi Yamamoto, the Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, and we're asking what's going to come out of this? That's where Robson Square becomes really important in my mind. There you have the 2010 Commerce Centre, and the BC Showcase.

What I like about this is that if you're a visitor to the Games, and you can't get out of the city, this facility allows you to see the rest of the province. It brings the communities of BC to a place in Vancouver for viewing, and it allows them a chance to shine.

BC companies will get to work together here to conduct an international outreach program. We also have a hosting strategy developed by Iain Black's ministry that will allow us to develop those connections. We recognize that most visitors will be concentrating on having a good time, but we think that there will be opportunities to make introductions that can be followed up on. On top of that, the Premier will be involved in hosting a reception for our guests on a nightly basis during the Games.

Right now we're sending out for feedback from key business leaders from around the world. What kind of events would they prefer to attend? Open-ended, or more structured introductions to what the Province has to offer?

The whole goal is not just having them here for seventeen days, it's to get them back. They say the eighteen months after the Olympics is really your busiest time.

Let's talk about that for a moment. Looking out to the future, how do we build upon our work on the Games?

It's about following up on those connections I described. You've had an opportunity to show off British Columbia as a place to live, play, work and invest. That's our focus. With the media that are arriving here we have the ability to speak to up to three billion people. It's a huge opportunity.

CTV have produced a series of vignettes about BC that the network is going to be showing. The thing I've always liked about watching the Olympics is that you learn a lot more about the place it's being held. My hope is that people next summer, when it's expected that the economy will be improving, that many people will be saying 'I liked that place I saw, now I'd like to go there.'

What's been the biggest surprise for you since taking over the job as BC's Minister of State for the Olympics?

It's a couple of things. One, the reading is unbelievable, but that's the life you lead as a new politician if you want to know your job. Having been put into cabinet right away adds to this, where you've got to know more and you've got to know it quicker.

I've come into a role where things across various ministries are all talking to each other so that we ensure that we have a great Games. I came in six months prior to, and there had been six years of work or more that happened to get here so there's a lot of catching up to do.

So it's learning what has happened so far, and realizing as I said before, there's not a lot of time to change anything and you've got to work with what you've got and build on it. That's been an adjustment.

It's also coming into cabinet in a time when the world economy is in the doldrums. When you're on the outside it seems a little easier to make the choices than when it's up to you to make the right decision, and it's not necessarily the popular choice. Going through that process, and putting yourself out there in the public, that was a surprise to me. It's much harder than I ever thought it would be.

Finally, what are you hearing from your constituents about the upcoming Games? Of course your riding, Vancouver-False Creek, will take centre stage on much of the activity.

Since the election campaign I've found that people are generally more positive about the Games, but it's always about the fear of the unknowns. We're trying hard to let people who live in the riding know what to expect. For some, their decision will be to be away during the Games. For others, they see it could be a lot of fun. But we're working hard at this time to answer everyone's questions, and if we don't know the answer, we certainly know where to get it.

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