02/08/2013 04:18 EST | Updated 04/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Manitoba Liberals have just paid off debt, but may lose money on conference

WINNIPEG - After taking more than a year to pay off their debt from the 2011 provincial election, the Manitoba Liberals may go right back into the red with a "Thinker's Conference" coming up soon.

The meeting Feb. 21-23 has been promoted for months. So far, between 50 and 60 people have signed up for tickets that sell for up to $265 each, says Dennis Trochim, the party's executive director.

"We're trying to get about 120. We're halfway there," he said Friday. "That's how Winnipeg is. People are going to come in the last two weeks."

The conference is aimed more at promoting ideas than raising funds, Trochim said, and is designed to break even at best. Even if the party loses hundreds of dollars, or maybe more, it would be worth the effort.

"If it costs us a few hundred to up to $1,000 (or) $1,500 to bring together some of the best experts in Canada and even the United States to talk about really important ideas, that's a price we're willing to pay."

Speakers at the three-day event include Jack Calhoun, a senior consultant with the U.S. Department of Justice, and Faisal Moola, a director with the David Suzuki Foundation. Discussions are to include pressing issues facing Manitoba such as street gangs, the environmental challenges of Lake Winnipeg and aboriginal rights.

The conference comes at a time when the Liberals are trying to remain on the political map. Leader Jon Gerrard plans to step down this fall following a disastrous 2011 election that saw the party win only one legislature seat and 7.5 per cent of the popular vote — down from two seats and 12 per cent in 2007.

The low voter support meant the Liberals for the first time did not qualify for a 50 per cent reimbursement of campaign expenses. They racked up $125,000 in campaign debt, which the party managed to pay off toward the end of last year.

With finances still questionable, there may not be much the Liberals can offer to a new leader. Gerrard, who holds the one seat the party does have, has promised to stay on, so his replacement will not have a legislature member's salary — at least not immediately.

But ground rules for the leadership vote are starting to be set. Nominations will open May 26 and the convention is to be held in Winnipeg Oct. 26. Candidates will have to put up a $2,500 fee.

So far, there is only one declared candidate — Robert Young, a Winnipeg business consultant and Christian fiction writer.