Halifax mayoral candidates spar over CFL stadium in first debate

Photo courtesy: Schooners Sports and Entertainment

In their first, and potentially only, in-person debate, the candidates for mayor of Halifax sparred over the proposed CFL stadium in their city.

While important issues like affordable housing, police funding and the removal of racially insensitive monuments took up the bulk of the time, each candidate had a strong opinion to express on the potential home of the Atlantic Schooners.

Halifax Regional Municipality debated the proposed stadium in Atlantic Canada last December and ended with council voting 10-7 in favour of funding $20 million for the project. Incumbent mayor Mike Savage was one of the ‘yes’ voters, while current competitor Matt Whitman recorded a ‘no’ vote.

“I think HRM dodged a bullet on the CFL stadium and COVID helped us through that. I was disappointed my colleagues committed $20 million to a stadium,” a fiery councilman Whitman reiterated on Wednesday.

The two-term councillor remains firmly opposed to the commitment of any public funds to a private stadium project.

“I am not going to put down taxpayers’ money. Yes, I’d put down $50. I go to CFL games and other games. I go to sporting events, but that is my money, not taxpayers’ money. I want to make the best decision for taxpayers, not insiders.”

SSE amended their initial proposal for a community stadium, which would have seating capacity for 24,000 to get it through the council. A one-time payment of $20 million was projected in available funding from the HRM strategic capital reserve in 2024. The HRM total contribution would have been a small fragment of the $120 million total cost for the project and considerably less than the costs of the original options proposed by SSE of $41 to $79 million.

“We would have put $20 million in and we would’ve gotten it back in property tax. In essence, it wouldn’t have cost anything. We would’ve had a stadium for generations to come,” two-term incumbent mayor Savage said, defending his position.

“I haven’t met a business person yet who doesn’t think that’s a good investment.”

Whitman disagrees with that statement.

“I’m one business person who has 20 years in business, eight years on council and I don’t think it was a good investment,” he said. “If it was a good investment, the Steeles, the O’Regans, Ken Rowe and Michael MacDonald would put money into it. They are not.”

Furthermore, Whitman believes the funds could be better used elsewhere.

“We can put it somewhere else. Affordable housing, homelessness, job creation, not a CFL stadium,” he stressed, emphasizing the rich businessmen behind the proposal would not be picking up the slack in those other areas.

22-year-old political upstart Max Taylor refused to be brought into the fray and had some pointed words when asked to comment on the issue.

“I think right now there’s a single mother out there who’s struggling to put food on the table for her family. To discuss the CFL stadium would be insulting to her,” the social media sensation said, moving the debate along.

Even Savage, billed as the stadium supporter among the candidates, admitted that the financial realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have placed the whole project on ice for the time being.

“For now, it’s not an expenditure we’re going to make,” he said after expressing his belief that council made the best decision for Halifax before the coronavirus hit.

All three candidates will be on the ballot come October 17 and the vote will be a crucial one for the potential expansion of the CFL.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.