Halifax council to take closer look at stadium proposal

Halifax municipality is taking a closer look at a proposed 24,000-seat stadium, the pivotal component of a bid to land a Canadian Football League team for the East Coast's largest city.

Council voted unanimously, but some councillors still concerned about cost, location

Halifax Regional Municipality is taking a closer look at a proposed 24,000-seat stadium, the pivotal component of a bid to land a Canadian Football League team for the East Coast's largest city.

But while council voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon for staff to conduct a thorough review of the business case, some councillors were uneasy about the financial burden, what it means for the neighborhood and the environmental implications of building a stadium so close to the ocean's edge.

Maritime Football Limited Partnership, a group that includes business executives and former owners of an NHL team, is in the final stages of securing a conditional CFL expansion franchise.

The group has proposed Shannon Park, a 38-hectare swath of land on the east side of Halifax harbour formerly used by the Department of Defence for housing, as the preferred location for the multi-purpose stadium.

Anthony LeBlanc, founding partner of Maritime Football, said he felt confident his group would be able to continue to work with city staff, the province, landowner Canada Lands Company, and the Millbrook First Nation.

Halifax council made a unanimous decision Tuesday afternoon to take a closer look at Maritime Football Limited Partnership's business case for a stadium in Shannon Park. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"Ultimately there's optimism that we can do this as long as everybody is at the table understanding what the shared risk is," he said.

LeBlanc said the city has made it clear it's not interested in owning the stadium, which would be the responsibility of his group. But he also knows that the project would need some form of help from the municipality, province and even the federal government. 

The new football team would be the anchor tenant of the stadium, which comes with an estimated price tag of up to $190 million. CAO Jacques Dubé​ said it could also include mix-used commercial and residential space.

"The stadium will be more than just about football," he said. "It's expected to host a variety of sporting events, concerts, cultural celebrations and Maritime Football Limited is analyzing winter-use options including a full-time outdoor ice surface in the winter and or an air inflated sports dome."

Worries about cost, location

City staff are expected to seek changes to the city's charter that would potentially allow for a special tax arrangement and assist with debt financing of the massive project — pending the outcome of the business case analysis.

This arrangement would allow the municipality to use property taxes collected on the development to pay toward the stadium's debt.

Several councillors raised concerns about how much exactly HRM would be on the hook for. Coun. Tim Outhit pointed to other stadiums in Winnipeg and Ottawa that have struggled with million-dollar losses. 

"I want to get more information, but let's not candy-coat it," he said. "This isn't guaranteed."

Coun. Richard Zurawski, meanwhile, raised questions about the location. 

"I see that this is probably the most vulnerable property to ocean-level rise, and stadiums are built for a long time," he said.

Dubé​ said HRM won't pay for operations or ongoing maintenance of the stadium, and that the province's participation as a funding partner would be key. 

I want to get more information, but let's not candy-coat it.- Coun . Tim Outhit

The report Dubé​ presented to council Tuesday also recommends engaging with the province on "new and incremental sources of revenue," such as increasing the hotel marketing levy or creating a new car rental tax.

Shannon Park from the air. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

"We're not looking to take construction risks, we're not looking to take financial risks on the project," Dubé​ said.

Stadiums can be polarizing

Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, says large projects like stadiums are often polarizing.

"They draw a tremendous amount of public interest and often that interest can be polarizing with either very big supporters or those who are vehemently against any kind of public dollars flowing into what's seen as the pockets of rich and wealthy owners," he said.

He pointed to controversy in Winnipeg over the Investors Group Field stadium. Earlier this year, the University of Manitoba said it will likely not recover more than $100 million owed from a loan to build the project, leaving the province to cover the shortfall.

"The outcome here is still mixed," Distasio said of Winnipeg's stadium. "I think the vast majority of people still appreciate that we have a wonderful new stadium but it has come with a price tag that we weren't necessarily prepared for from the beginning."

He added: "Careful financial planning and oversight is absolutely critical."

Fans will show up, says mayor

But Coun. Steve Streatch is optimistic things will work out. 

"I want to see a stadium. I want to see a team," he said. "I want to see the development and the good things that can come from this. And for us to steer away, maybe because of our apprehension or our fear, is not how I'd make a business decision."

Mayor Mike Savage said this is the city's best chance for a CFL team, and he has "no doubt that football will be successful if it comes to Halifax."

With files from Emma Smith