I’ve been something of a pessimist when it comes to the CFL’s expansion plans in Halifax, largely because I didn’t believe the group behind the project would be able to find the money to build a stadium.
Their initial plan hinged on being able to convince the municipal and provincial governments to give them something in the neighbourhood of $200 million to build a CFL-worthy facility: rich guys asking governments to support pro sports franchises – essentially to hand over wads of public money so they can get richer – is never a good look.
And sure enough, the noise coming from both Halifax regional council and the province was that public funding for a pro football stadium was essentially a non-starter. Sure, they voted to look at whatever Schooners Sports and Entertainment (SSE) came up with but the likelihood of a big financial ask getting approval seemed increasingly unlikely.
To their credit, SSE seems to have figured this out. SSE head Anthony LeBlanc told the assembled media after Saturday’s announcement that the group realized the old plan was political suicide.
“What we basically presented to city staff last fall and relayed to council … at that point we were at $170 to $190 million … this is a totally different model,” LeBlanc said. “That was a professional building based off what was recently built in Hamilton and Winnipeg. And we’ve said, ‘we get it. That’s just not going to happen here.’”
Instead, SSE has come up with a plan that involves the city and the province funding what amounts to a 12,000-seat community-use stadium with SSE paying out of their own pockets to add another 14,000 seats make it into a viable CFL facility.
It’s an unorthodox plan to be sure, but one that just might work.
Instead of asking politicians to fund a pro football stadium, they are being asked to support a stadium that will be used by a number of community sports organizations, including football, soccer and rugby. Getting Sport Nova Scotia on board was smart and CEO Jamie Ferguson spoke eloquently about the need for facilities and the role sports can play in the development of young hearts and minds.
So instead of asking politicians to pay for a football stadium for a pro team owned by rich guys and watched primarily by adults, the ask is now for a community stadium so kids (and adults) can play sports 300 days a year. That’s a far, far easier argument to make and it gives the politicians some much-needed cover: this isn’t about the CFL, it’s about the community.
It also shifts the discussion away from the supposed economic benefits of building a full-sized stadium – which have been largely debunked, in my opinion – and allows it to become more about the potential benefits to the larger community. Capital investments in things like sports fields or hockey rinks or art galleries or theatres aren’t just made with money in mind, they are made because they play a role in the social fabric of our communities.
Of course, just because it’s a better argument doesn’t mean it will work. Whether Halifax needs a 12,000-seat community stadium is a legitimate question, though the biggest facility in the city right now would appear to be the 6,500-seat Wanderers Grounds, the recently-renovated home of the new Canadian Premier League franchise: that’s pretty small for a city of 400,000-plus.
And the devil is always in the details. SSE has yet to submit a formal plan on how this all will actually work and there’s certainly no guarantee that any level of government – nevermind three – will sign on for this: the stadium will still require a significant amount of public investment and risk.
But while that hasn’t changed, the argument being put forward by SSE is infinitely better – so much so that they’ve actually given themselves and chance at succeeding.