Nova Scotia

Group behind Atlantic Schooners thinks goal-line remains in sight in Halifax

The COVID-19 pandemic has not deflated hopes for a football stadium in Halifax, but some economists and politicians don't think governments should get in the game.

Pandemic hasn't deflated the hopes of ownership, but some politicians and economists aren't convinced

Schooners Sports and Entertainment are optimistic they can drum up public funds for a future stadium. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic has not deflated hopes for a football stadium in Halifax, but some economists and politicians don't think governments should get in the game.

Founding partners Gary Drummond and Jim Stapleton of Schooner Sports and Entertainment, the group behind the proposed Atlantic Schooners football team, say a lot depends on how the Canadian Football League does in 2021 with its comeback schedule.

The partners are optimistic they can drum up support for a Halifax stadium once it's safe to travel between provinces.

If anything, Drummond said the pandemic and tough economic losses facing Nova Scotians means a high-profile project like a stadium could bring a lot of jobs, and be a boost to the province.

"We're more optimistic than we've ever been, probably on the stadium itself," Drummond said in a recent interview alongside Stapleton.

Drummond said the organization would need at least a year to get their football operations up and running. That would include getting scouts, coaches and management in place and working out the details of a draft.

If all goes well, Drummond said the Schooners could hit the field in 2022 in Moncton, where there is a stadium in place. The plan is to relocate the Schooners once a stadium is built in Halifax.

The group wants all three levels of government to pitch in. 

A rendering for the proposed $110-million, 24,000-seat CFL stadium. Originally pitched for Shannon Park, Halifax council approved $20 million for the project but only if it was located somewhere else. (Schooners Sports and Entertainment)

Drummond said nearly all major public facilities around the world are built with government funds because that's the only way they get done. 

"The philosophy on how these sort of facilities get built goes back to … the Colosseum in Rome. I mean, the government built that," Drummond said. 

Stapleton said regardless of someone's opinion about football, most would likely be happy to see 1,400 construction-related jobs to build the stadium, and $100 million in yearly economic impact around hotels, food and beverage industries, and other events hosted at the facility.

He also pointed to the last Grey Cup in Edmonton, which brought in $81 million for the week.

But sports economist Moshe Lander said studies have shown time and again that stadiums don't deliver economic benefits, and spinoff benefits are usually exaggerated.

"If the government is going to put money into the project, they should not expect to get a return on their investment," said Lander, who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal and also Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"That's just a very weird sort of belief that somehow all levels of government will buy into this when there's nothing in it for them, in the middle of a pandemic where every government is stretched as far as they can go."

Moshe Lander is a sports economist at Concordia University. (CBC)

Pointing to Stapleton's construction example, Lander said those jobs are only "created" if 1,000 workers are sitting at home unemployed. If they're not, the project just shifts over existing workers from one place to another.

Economic activity is the same, Lander said. When he's in Halifax, Lander heads to his favourite bar on Thursday nights for dinner and drinks. But if there's a CFL team in the city, he will skip a few of those outings to afford a game ticket.

Although team owners might say they created $50 in economic activity, Lander said they did, but by taking away $50 of activity for that bar.

"So what's the net effect? Zero. You just moved it from one place to another," Lander said. "The fact is that they're not presenting the [counterpoint], which is there's costs as well."

Lander also said the owners can call the team the Atlantic Schooners all they want, but people from all four provinces in the region aren't regularly going to travel hours to watch games every week during the season.

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The only chance for success would be to get a plan in place for Halifax, drum up excitement for the team, build a stadium and launch the team there, Lander said.

The ownership group's original pitch for a stadium in the former military housing community of Shannon Park in Dartmouth was spiked by Halifax regional council last December.

The council approved $20 million for a possible $110-million stadium, but only if it wasn't in Shannon Park and a long list of conditions were met.

The stadium proposed by SSE would be a 24,000-seat facility with an inflatable winter sports dome that could be used for professional football and community sports. SSE said the stadium could host one to two major concerts a year and a minimum of one Grey Cup every 10 years.

Sam Austin, councillor for Dartmouth Centre, voted against approving funds for the stadium.

He said he doesn't consider the stadium to be a high priority, especially since those millions will be coming out of the strategic capital reserve.

To spend $20 million on a stadium when there's transit, integrated mobility, libraries and a new police station to fund is "like going out and buying a boat when your roof is leaking," Austin said.

Austin said the ball is now in the ownership group's court to come back to them with a location. That would then have to be approved by council, which has many new members, and the economic outlook of the city has changed dramatically since the pandemic.

The CFL has announced a 2021 schedule and hopes to play in front of crowds. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The provincial and federal governments haven't announced any interest in chipping in.

When asked about Premier Stephen McNeil's comments this August that a stadium is "not a priority," Stapleton said his organization was looking forward to working with the new Liberal leader that will step into the premier's role in February.

Of the three MLAs vying for that top job, Iain Rankin and Labi Kousoulis said they would not use taxpayer money for a CFL stadium. Randy Delorey did not respond by deadline.

Rankin said the decision on whether to have a CFL team in Halifax is a decision for the league, and ought to be led by the private sector. 

Kousoulis added he'd be open to looking at a land contribution if there was surplus property owned by the provincial government that might be suitable.

Once it's clear that the CFL is on solid footing again and COVID-19 restrictions are loosened, Drummond and Stapleton said they don't think it will take more than a year to get public funding for the stadium in place and cement a team.

"If we can't get it done in that time frame I think we'd have to acknowledge we can't get it done," Drummond said.

But Lander said the Schooners' group is banking on politicians to bow to the pressure of a deadline, when there's really no push from the public.

He added there's also a real possibility the CFL shrinks down to the most lucrative teams in western Canada and the Prairies, while those like Hamilton and Montreal take a break from playing until fans can be packed in the stands again.

"This is not the time when leagues are thinking expansion. They're merely trying to protect their current business model, not how to grow it out," Lander said.

The first game of the 2021 season is set to feature the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers on June 10.

Randy Ambrosie, commissioner of the CFL, has said he's optimistic the season will take place in front of fans.