If Halifax gets a CFL team, should taxpayer money help pay for a stadium?

A business group trying to bring a CFL team to Halifax says it'll be looking for government help to pay for a stadium, claiming it would bring positive economic spinoffs.

Business group says stadium would have positive economic impacts, but sports economist disputes that

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers' Ryan Smith dives for the goal-line to score his second touchdown against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 13, 2016. (Canadian Press)

If a CFL team came to Halifax, Myles Knight says he'd be the first person in line to get season tickets.

The 24-year-old lives in Prospect Bay, N.S., and says he'd go to games with his brother, Bradley, as well as friends and girlfriends.

"I just hope that this goes through and hopefully we do get a team here. If we do, I'll be excited," said Myles Knight. 

The Knight brothers spent part of their childhood living just outside Calgary and would sometimes attend Calgary Stampeders games.

Bradley Knight has one concern about the idea of a team setting up shop in Nova Scotia.

"I've seen some studies that have looked at putting in public funds for stadiums that ended up being more of a burden for taxpayers than it does the people who own and operate the stadium," said the 26-year-old accountant who lives in Brookside, N.S.

In November, it was announced that a group of businesspeople was looking to establish a team here, which has generated buzz about the CFL potentially being a coast-to-coast league. The easternmost team is Montreal.

The proponents behind Maritime Football Limited are Bruce Bowser, the CEO of AMJ Campbell Van Lines, Gary Drummond, the former president of hockey operations for the NHL's Arizona Coyotes and Anthony LeBlanc, the former president and CEO of the Coyotes.

Besides setting up a franchise here, the proponents would also build a stadium that would seat 24,000 to 28,000 people. LeBlanc said the model would follow that of Ottawa's Lansdowne Park. Besides a stadium, there would be housing and businesses, which would include retailers and restaurants.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe says economic research has found professional sports teams do not generate additional economic activity in the places where they operate. (CBC)

LeBlanc said potential sites for a stadium include Dartmouth Crossing, Bayers Lake, Bedford and a location near the Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

Once a site is settled on, he said an economic impact analysis would be carried out by the consulting and accounting firm Deloitte.

LeBlanc said funding for the stadium would need to come from both public and private sources.

Economic impact of sports teams

Professional sports teams often look for public money to help build stadiums and arenas, arguing the investment will pay for itself through economic spinoffs.

Trevor Tombe, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, said the jobs argument doesn't hold up. He said economic impact studies are flawed.

"It is far too simple a representation of the economy. It doesn't account for the fact public dollars used to build an arena, for example, could have been used elsewhere and have to come from elsewhere," he said.

As well, Tombe said the research on the economic impact of having sports teams in a city suggests they don't have one.

"There doesn't appear to be any strong evidence for sports teams moving in or out of a city having any meaningful impact on income, employment, jobs overall," he said.

Rather, Tombe said, sports teams shift economic activity, so individuals may spend more of their money on buying tickets and dining at restaurants near the stadium, but this comes at the expense of other entertainment activities they usually undertake.

Arizona Coyotes attorney Nicholas Wood (left) and team president Anthony LeBlanc (centre) speak with media in Glendale, Ariz., in 2015. (The Associated Press)

LeBlanc disagrees.

"That's a new company that's coming in, people that are being paid for jobs that don't exist in the market right now, so I kind of scratch my head at the comment that there's no impact on [the] region," said LeBlanc, referring to the players, coaching and front-office staff a team would have.

'Not just a football stadium'

He said it's "not just a football stadium" and the stadium could be used for concerts, university athletics, as well as national and international sporting events.

"This will allow Halifax to become — I certainly consider it a world-class city — but it really does allow it to take that step up and have an offering that it just doesn't have right now," said LeBlanc.

Mayor Mike Savage believes having a team here would generate tax revenue for the city and province. He envisions people visiting from out of town to watch games. These people would also stay at hotels, eat at restaurants and go shopping.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the city has more pressing needs than to put money into a stadium. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"I think for the city there's a reputational benefit of being a big-league, professional sports town," he said.

But Savage isn't keen on putting money into a stadium.

"Right now, I don't think there's an appetite to put a lot of capital money in. We have other things we want to look at that are capital-intensive projects and that's over and above the usual things that we have to do, like investing in streets and recreation," he said.

Savage said building a police station or performing arts centre are more pressing capital projects for the city.

Savage said he's open to providing funding along the lines of how the city is helping finance Halifax's Nova Centre. The city established a convention centre reserve fund that collects the commercial property taxes from the Nova Centre complex and uses that money to help offset the annual costs of operating the convention centre.

Saskatchewan Roughriders fans cheer before the CFL East Division final game against the Toronto Argos at BMO Field in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. (The Canadian Press)

Tombe said whether the municipality cuts a cheque up front or uses a reserve fund approach, it would still be providing a subsidy. He said the optics of the reserve fund approach may appear more favourable to the public.

"It makes the subsidy less transparent, less obvious that it indeed even is a subsidy and so may receive less pushback by the public than actually cutting a cheque with a clearly visible dollar amount associated with it," he said.

Would province kick in money?

The province is noncommittal about whether it would provide money for a stadium. 

Infrastructure Renewal spokesperson Marla MacInnis said deputy premier Karen Casey met with the proponents in November and money wasn't requested from the province.

"If an ask is made in the future, we would assess their proposal, like we do with all proposals, before determining whether an investment in the CFL is right for Nova Scotia," said MacInnis in an email.

Mayor impressed by proponents

Savage said he's been impressed by how the proponents have gone about trying to set up a team.

"Other times that a stadium or a CFL team has been mentioned, in those cases, people went out, there was headlines before there was any work done. These guys are doing it the reverse way. They're doing the work, they've got their heads down, they're meeting local people," he said.

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