Q&A: Mayor Mike Savage states ‘there is no political appetite’ for a CFL-specific stadium in Halifax

Photo courtesy: City of Halifax

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage grew up cheering for the Montreal Alouettes and follows the CFL, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to support a CFL-specific stadium in his city in the future.

Savage voted yes to funding $20 million for the project — multiple contingencies were attached to unlocking the funds — led by Schooner Sports and Entertainment in December 2019, but that was over two-and-a-half years ago and his stance has changed. He explained why in a lengthy question and answer session with 3DownNation.

Justin Dunk: Pre-pandemic the $20 million was contingent on several things and it went through. That was a major step from the CFL’s perspective to potentially getting a stadium here. How has that changed now?

Savage: “It’s changed dramatically because we didn’t have any partners on that. No other order of government stepped in. Then Anthony LeBlanc went off to run the Ottawa Senators and we just seemed to lose interest in it. Of course, the CFL didn’t play for a year at all and then they came back, so there was that.”

“We’ve talked about football here in the Halifax area for decades going back certainly to the 80s. There’s always been this problem, there’s been this interest in football and other events, we just don’t have a stadium. So how do you get a stadium?”

“I would say the idea of an outside the core of the city major stadium with 25,000 seats is nowhere, that’s just not on the books right now — there is no political appetite for it. The cost of construction has gone crazy. We don’t have a place to play and that’s not going to change in the short term. Are there other options? There may be over the years, but right now we don’t have a place to play professional football.”

Dunk: Have you had any talks with the league after the pandemic lockdowns?

Savage: “Not really, no. The commissioner’s been very good about coming and talking to us. It was always my view that you can’t have just — people thought it was a CFL stadium — a CFL stadium, you can’t survive on nine games a year, a couple of playoff games and an exhibition game. It always had to be more than that, but the CFL came tied in with it.”

“In the meantime, the Halifax Wanderers soccer team have set up on the Wanderers Grounds. Sell out most of their games, six or 7,000 people and have created a real ecosystem right in the heart of the city.”

“And so I think a lot of people have said that’s what we’re in for in Halifax. We’re not going to go build a $200 million or $150 million dollar stadium on the outskirts of the city where there’s no built-in bars, restaurants, that kind of stuff. In the last few years, we brought a couple of professional teams to Halifax, the Thunderbirds playing in the National Lacrosse League, people love it. The Wanderers have done a fabulous job up there. And so we’ve kind of settled into that.”

Dunk: Randy Ambrosie has essentially guaranteed expansion and then he referenced Halifax. So that makes me think: is there a way that you would be open to a privately funded stadium? Or is that even something that’s been discussed?

Savage: “Well, in some ways the idea that was led by Anthony LeBlanc was private sector-led, it would have required some public money, but private sector-led. I just don’t think right now that it’s realistic at all to suggest that we’re going to build that kind of stadium, we’re not going to do it at Shannon Park, we’re not going to do it in Woodside, we’re not going to do it in Dartmouth Crossing, it’s not going to happen in Bayers Lake. I think if there’s ever going to be a stadium that’s suitable for the CFL — and I think the CFL would love to come here and I think people would love to have the CFL here — it’s going to have to be a scaled-down version, it’s not going to be 30,000 seats.”

“And when you look at stadiums today — I was out in Regina and I had a tour of Mosaic, which is an unbelievable stadium by Canadian standards — the focus seems to be on the private suites, but then the end zones where people come and stand and watch a game and you get younger people in to make it an experience. The old stadium concept of 25,000 seats, it’s just not going to work, here.”

“If there’s a model where we can do something similar to what the Wanderers did, that may be worth considering, but we’re not there yet. The Wanderers stadium is part of what’s called the Halifax Commons area. We’re going through a Commons master plan right now and we have to honour that and listen to people and see what might come out. Who knows? Maybe at some point in time, I know [owner] Derek Martin has an idea that he could put a larger stadium there. Could that be used for the CFL? That’s potentially possible, but we’re not there yet.”

Dunk: Is that the idea with Touchdown Atlantic? 10,000 fans, a stadium that big and you could add to it?

Savage: “We didn’t invite Touchdown Atlantic, it’s just a great event to have in the city. Or, of course, it’s in Acadia. The CFL is always interested in tilling the ground out here to see what the interest is.”

“I’ve never felt it would be hard to get an ownership group for a CFL team. I’ve always felt like people would come and watch a game. But those things don’t add up to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure. If there’s ever going to be a CFL team here, I think it’s gonna have to be in a modified format, in a different kind of stage.”

Dunk: If somebody came to you, let’s say it was SSE in this example, and said: ‘We’re going to fund the stadium.’ Could that be a starting point to negotiating a privately funded stadium?

Savage: “That was the idea before was that they would, but there was always going to be some public input. If somebody came to us and said: ‘You sell us the land, we’ll run the stadium, we’ll do the whole thing.’ You’d be crazy to say no. The $20 million that we committed as a council was a virtually no-lose deal for us because we were going to get property tax on it. So we’d commit 20 million, but we were going to get property tax that would pay itself back in a number of years.”

“For us, it was a no-lose. But what’s happened here is the community’s become polarized between those who really want a stadium at any cost and those who don’t want any stadium at any cost. And what we have to do is bridge that, find a model that might work and say: Do we have a way that we can have a stadium that’s good for a lot of needs?”

“There are some national sports bodies that are looking to Halifax to be a centre of excellence and a training ground. We hosted an international rugby match between Canada and Belgium, which I was at a couple of weeks ago. The Wanderers have come up with a really cool concept where they get whatever their maximum is, they’ve sold out.

“Bob Young, who’s the owner of the Ticats and also the owner of the Hamilton soccer team, has been here a couple of times and said: This is amazing what we have here. If that could ever be modified in such a way that the CFL might be interested in, then that would be kind of cool, but we just aren’t there yet.”

“When the Mooseheads are going well and in the playoffs, they draw nine, 10,000 people, it’s a hugely successful franchise — Bobby Smith has done a great job, Cam Russell the general manager. The Thunderbirds pack the Scotiabank Centre. Teams that come here do pretty well. I think we have the appetite for it, but it’s just a big, big jump to go from there to funding a stadium.”

Dunk: Is there a pathway in your mind or a timeline that you can see? Or is the city more focused on solving issues like homelessness?

Savage: “The things that keep me awake is homelessness and housing, I think a lot of mayors will tell you that. Those are the things that are on my mind all the time, how do we figure that piece out? But you have to run a whole city and you have to look at the whole thing. We’re a growing city, the city is flourishing right now. You can walk down the streets of Halifax and for the number of people that are here, it’s exciting, it’s a vibrant time, but we have issues that come with that growth. That’s what captivates me all the time. But at the same time, we have to continue to grow and one of the things that allow you to grow is infrastructure and some of that infrastructure includes sports infrastructure. We’ve spent a lot of money on Graves-Oakley Field so that rugby can be played there.”

“The city owns the Wanderers’ Grounds. We put money into those grounds to bring them up to a level where you can play professional soccer and rugby. Back in 2015, there was a big international rugby match, the team from Glasgow was over here to play a Canadian team. And the folks got over here and they wouldn’t play on the field, the Wanderers’ Grounds. That’s one of the things that I think spurred Derek to say, we can fix up this Wanderers Grounds, turn it back into what it once was, which was the centre of sport in Halifax 150 years ago. He came up with an idea and it worked.”

“There may be some options with that, but we also want to maintain the integrity of the Commons. I was up [Wednesday] at the lawn bowling club that’s up in that area, which is kind of cool. We have the Lancers, which is horses in the middle of the city that do a lot of programs for kids who have disabilities and kids who you wouldn’t think could afford that kind of thing. Being in the heart of the city is a very special thing.”

“There’s a lot of things around, so we’re master planning it. Who knows, I just don’t want anybody to think that I can promise that we’ll have the CFL playing there. It’s possible but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Dunk: You look at the $20 million vote that was a yes and went through in 2019, is the pandemic the main thing that’s changed that possibility now?

Savage: “I think one of the things that changed it too is, we had a municipal election and a different council, half of our council is new. Would a vote go through now? I have no idea, I guess it would depend on the value prop, but there just is not an appetite right now. The provincial government had indicated back then they could look at it under the right circumstances, but they never committed any money to it. We were the only ones that actually committed money to it and we were going to get most of that back in property tax, so it wasn’t a big risk for us.”

“We have large infrastructure needs in this city because of the growing population. We’re going to have to look at a cricket pitch. We’ve got people coming whose primary sport was cricket and right now they play on the Halifax Commons. It’s fun to go and watch them play, but they deserve a better place to play. We’re building pump tracks and things like that, to service a growing population.”

“The stadium in my view, in part, because of the success of the Wanderers Grounds, the idea of building a purpose-built stadium that could be used for the CFL has kind of moved away. If the CFL is ever to come to Halifax, which would be a cool thing, it would have to be in a modified format, in terms of where they play.”

Dunk: Is there a timeline in your mind where you think that could be back on the table?

Savage: “Within this year, we want to do the master plan for the Commons. If the Commons was ever an opportunity for us to do something more permanent, people love it there, we’ll know that within the year.”

Dunk: Would there be a timeline for the discussion of a CFL team to come back on the table?

Savage: “We met with the commissioner [Wednesday] he was in here. And we told him, we said look: We don’t have a place to play, we’d love to have a team but unless you’re going to play in the parking lot of Mic Mac Mall, it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. But there’s always that possibility and we have to get creative around it.”

“The CFL has always indicated, going back to Mark Cohon 10 years ago, that they’d love to be here. It’d be a truly national league. We have great other cities in Atlantic Canada like Moncton that have a stadium already. And if there was a CFL team in Moncton, I’d support them except when they played the Alouettes.”

“But I think Halifax is the financial and cultural centre, heart of Atlantic Canada and the corporate support is here. I love Moncton, we’re doing the World Juniors with them this year. I think the CFL would eye Halifax and see Halifax as the primary place to have a team.”

“It’s just logical on so many levels, you have 10 teams, five East, five West, there is a symmetry to the whole thing — coast to coast.”

Dunk: But the stadium is the key part, right?

Savage: “As I say, unless you’re going to play in the parking lot. We got lots of cool infrastructure here. The CFL is outside my window for the next couple of days here in Grand Parade. The CFL is going to be celebrating the CFL at the same time as we’re celebrating Pride and at the same time as we have the jazz fest. It’s just cool right now in the city.”

“I admire the vision of the commissioner and I think he should be ambitious. If your reach doesn’t exceed your grasp, then what are we here for? I just gotta be very honest, we don’t have a place to play right now and we may in the future, but it’s not going to be the way that we thought it was five years ago.”

Dunk: If there was some way that the CFL could wrap their heads around the idea that you’re working on with the Commons, could that be a possibility?

Savage: “It could be, but I want to be clear, we’re not working on an idea for the CFL, we’re just doing a master plan for the entire Commons. We have to figure out what we do with Wanderers Field. I know that Derek Martin would like to see a more permanent stadium there, that could be really cool. That could be environmental, that could continue to be a gathering place, that could be flexible for more than just obviously soccer, it can be rugby, it can be concerts, it can be festivals, and events and everything else serves a real purpose. I think the city would be inclined to say, OK, that makes a lot of sense, we could put something into that.”

“But I just don’t want people to go out and say: Well, you know, the mayor is trying to bring the CFL into the city through this. The problem is we don’t have a place for the CFL to play, if we do in the future that would be great, but I can’t tell you where it would be.”

Dunk: When you say the master plan for the Commons, that’s the grounds as a whole?

Savage: “When people think of the Halifax Common, it’s the big green space, our little Central Park in the heart of Halifax, it’s very important to us.

“For the 2011 Canada games, they built the oval for speed skating and it was going to come down afterwards. And people said, wait a second, this is awesome. It’s a pretty cool place in the wintertime, the place is packed. In the summertime, people walk and rollerblade and do that. It’s become a really important part of the infrastructure and the recreational infrastructure of our city.”

“There’s a real advantage to just having green space in the middle of a city and the Commons provides that. But it also includes other parts of it, so for example, we’re building a permanent aquatic facility that will be free to everybody, a beautiful pool that will be free. And in a lot of cases that will be free to families that couldn’t afford to join the place that you have to pay to swim. We’re spending $15 or $16 million on that, and that’s also in the Commons.”

“We want the Commons to remain with the people, we want there to be green space, but we also think that there’s a purpose for some of the land that wasn’t envisioned 150 years ago. The Wanderers Grounds is on that area. People vote with their feet and with their wallets, they enjoy it. There may be something there but we’re not at that point and we have to listen to a lot of different people’s points of view on it.”

“I love walking by going to talk to the folks. With the growth of our population, which is largely immigrant fuelled, we have a number of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, West Indies, whose primary sport has always been cricket and so we’re going to have to do something to accommodate that need. There’s just a lot of growing needs infrastructure-wise for us.”

Dunk: In terms of Touchdown Atlantic, are you open to that continuing as a yearly event in the future?

Savage: “Absolutely. I’ve been to games before here. They’ve been at Saint Mary’s before and they’ll have a blast up at Acadia, Wolfville this weekend. Touchdown Atlantic has become a cool thing.”

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.