What Halifax councillors think about backing a stadium

The city is awaiting a business plan from the proponents of a plan to build a stadium in Shannon Park and bring an expansion CFL franchise to the city. CBC News contacted every councillor and the mayor to get their thoughts.

'We're going to be looking at an aquarium, not a stadium,' councillor says about proposed Shannon Park spot

Ryan Smith of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers dives for the goal-line against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver in a 2016 CFL game. (Canadian Press)

While Halifax Regional Municipality Coun. Richard Zurawski hasn't decided how he'll vote regarding whether the city should support a stadium, it's clear he's leaning heavily toward no when that vote eventually takes place.

"No stadium has really worked out," he said. "It's become a bit of an albatross for the public."

Zurawski said if a stadium is such a good deal for taxpayers, the proponents should be able to pay for it themselves.

Stadiums built with support from governments in Hamilton, Winnipeg and Ottawa have had issues ranging from construction defects to taxpayers being left on the hook for building costs.

The city is awaiting a business plan from the proponents of a plan to build a stadium in Shannon Park and bring an expansion CFL franchise to the city.

CBC News contacted every councillor and the mayor to see where they stood. The only councillor who didn't reply was Steve Streatch.

Halifax council made a unanimous decision last October to take a closer look at Maritime Football Limited Partnership's business case for a stadium in Shannon Park. Council is still awaiting the business plan. (David Laughlin/CBC)

In general, many councillors were open to the idea of supporting a stadium under certain conditions, but Zurawski and Waye Mason are the ones who seem least interested in the idea, although they haven't made up their mind.

Many said they won't make up their mind until they see the business case.

Maritime Football Limited wants to build a 24,000-seat stadium that would also be used for high school and university sports, concerts, music festivals and community events. The stadium would be part of a development that would also feature housing, office and retail space.

Anthony LeBlanc, one of the proponents, said the estimated cost of a stadium is now in the ballpark of $120 million to $140 million, down from a previous estimate of $170 million to $190 million.

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

Zurawski said if Maritime Football is looking for tax breaks, he wants to know whether they use tax shelters and if they plan to pay a living wage to the people the stadium would employ.

While council has said it's not interested in kicking in a large capital contribution for the stadium, councillors David Hendsbee, Sam Austin, Tony Mancini, Steve Adams and Matt Whitman are open to supporting the idea through tax breaks.

One possibility that's been thrown around is to have the property taxes collected from the development given back to the proponent for a period of time, an arrangement known as tax-increment financing (TIF).

Fans display an Atlantic Schooners banner at the Toronto-Edmonton game at Moncton Stadium in Moncton, N.B., on Sept. 26, 2010. The team was to join the CFL in the 1980s but never played a game because funding could not be secured for a stadium. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

In a blog post, Mason said he isn't a fan of this model, "but it is especially weird to trumpet a TIF at Shannon Park, where the redevelopment plan is well underway and HRM is going to get development and taxes out of that site — stadium or no stadium."

Mason said that with the city's capital and operating budgets being tight for the next few years, he said he can't see the city spending money on a stadium, which is a sentiment Zurawski shares.

"Council is doing budget deliberations and we talk about cutbacks to library services, cutbacks to transit, cutbacks in order to keep the tax increases down to 1.9 per cent," said Zurawski. "We're cutting back all over the place."

Trevor Tombe, a University of Calgary economics professor, previously told CBC News that whether a municipality cuts a cheque up front or uses tax-increment financing, it would still be providing a subsidy. He said the optics of the latter 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.

Once Maritime Football submits its business plan, city staff will conduct a review and produce a report, which will be brought before council.

Earlier this week, LeBlanc said he hoped the team would begin play for the 2020 season, but he said the franchise could play in Moncton until the stadium was ready here.

Zurawski said he's not impressed with the lobbying effort for the stadium, which he views as pressuring council.

Anthony LeBlanc is a founding partner in Maritime Football Limited. (Robert Short/CBC)

"They had promised in the fall that it was a matter of weeks before a formal presentation, and that Shannon Park was a low probability location," he said in an email.

"Already, they have broken those two promises. They have engaged in a public relations exercise, sold advance tickets, naming of the proposed CFL team, and decided without consultation with council that Shannon Park is the site."

Adams said while he's open to some sort of property tax arrangement, he isn't a huge a fan of Shannon Park as a location.

"I think access and egress is going to be a real issue," he said, which is a concern that was echoed by Coun. Lisa Blackburn.

Another concern about this site that was raised by Blackburn and Zurawski is the impact rising oceans would have on the piece of waterfront infrastructure.

Zurawski, a noted climate change expert, said that in as little as 50 years the stadium would be underwater.

"We're going to be looking at an aquarium, not a stadium," he said.

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)

Mayor Mike Savage has been a vocal proponent of a stadium, but at the right cost.

"Nobody builds a stadium and gives it to a city, we understand that, but there has to be a recognition the city is not prepared to go deep into debt to finance a stadium," he said.

Savage said he'd support the project if the capital costs for the city weren't significant and the city wouldn't be on the hook for operating expenditures.

Operating the facility is expected to cost up to $4 million per year, an expense that would be covered by LeBlanc's group.

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