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SCOTT STINSON: Owners of CFL team in Halifax attempt to ‘de-risk’ spending millions on a new stadium

The Atlantic Schooners hope to become the tenth team in the CFL.
The Atlantic Schooners hope to become the 10th team in the CFL. - Contributed

When a professional sports team makes a pitch for public funding for a new stadium, it is a given that some of the various bells and whistles that make the project sound so exciting will eventually not ring nor toot.

It’s easy to throw lots of cool ideas into glossy architectural renderings — bars, restaurants, condos, a sports complex, a rock-climbing wall — but when it is time to actually fund and build the thing, the extra stuff often falls away and what is left is the stadium for the sports team, which is all the team ever wanted.

Credit, then, to the would-be Atlantic Schooners, who have done a lot of their scaling-down before a plan was ever released.

It was at the Grey Cup in November that CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie officially threw his lot in with a group of businessmen who want to own the league’s 10th franchise and base it in Halifax. There was a vague concept for a stadium, the funding of which was unclear, which if nothing else made it a little odd that the commissioner was so keen on the idea. Everyone has known for ages that the Schooners have some enthusiastic local fans, but the lack of a stadium was the major stumbling block. It remained so even as Ambrosie gave the Schooners and the new owners his blessing.

Anthony LeBlanc, a former owner of the Phoenix Coyotes who is one of the main partners in Schooners Sports and Entertainment, said in November that a business case for the new stadium would be presented to Halifax council in a matter of weeks. A building with about 24,000 seats would cost about $180-million, and in theory the funds would be split between the municipality, the province of Nova Scotia, and the team owners.

This was, it turned out, a little ambitious. Before the plans and a potential funding structure could even be put together, LeBlanc and partners have tossed the idea of a 24,000-seat stadium — which is about what the CFL requires — and now have their eyes on a modest 12,000-seat venture, which would be part of the development of the old Shannon Park military site in Dartmouth. This structure would be a “community use” facility, for local sports teams and the like, which might make local politicians more eager to supplement the $120-million estimated building cost. The Schooners group would also build a 10,000-seat temporary stand as part of a first phase of the stadium’s life, with the hope that those would eventually be replaced by a more robust wing once it was clear that the whole CFL-in-Halifax thing was actually working.

It is a curious proposal. LeBlanc, in an interview, explained that the idea of a phased build was first suggested by Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. The current proposal, LeBlanc says, would “de-risk” the stadium concept for politicians leery of spending tens of millions of dollars on a large stadium that would have limited use.

But it also elevates the risk that the stadium will never be a proper CFL size. Rather than finding the money for a full-size stadium up front, the proponents now seek half a stadium, with the other half to come at some point down the road. “It could be three years, it could be 10 years,” LeBlanc said. That is a lot of years. And so, while pro leagues generally don’t award expansion franchises unless they have a proposed home, the CFL still stands behind this one even though their current plan is to cobble together some kind of stadium-lite.

The change in scope means that instead of asking governments to give them money for a professional stadium, they will now try to talk governments into building a facility for local sports clubs and teams — and also the Schooners would play there up to a dozen times a year. LeBlanc acknowledges that governments these days are less enthusiastic about building big arenas for wealthy franchises — he used the word “toxic” when describing that idea — and so this proposal envisions public money for something that would have public use.

At least, that’s the suggestion. Politicians, and the public, might feel otherwise. There has been nothing stopping the construction of a big public-use field and stadium in the area, and yet none was planned. Shannon Park was already slated for a mixed-use development that did not include any kind of large sports complex. This new facility might have benefits to the public, but the only reason it is now being proposed is so that the Schooners have a place to play.

Will governments see this as a good use of public money? For a city the size of Halifax, it is a huge spend. For context, the new proposed cost of $120-million is almost equal to the whole of Halifax’s capital budget for 2018-19. Even if the municipality is asked to kick in half the total, or a third of it, it would make for a significant line item.

Other questions remain. Will building a stadium in Dartmouth, across the basin from downtown Halifax, create crippling traffic on the bridges on game days? One local councillor, Richard Zurawski, told me in an interview — before the change in the proposed stadium’s size — that Shannon Park was a “stupid” site for a such a project, and that it would have “huge transportation issues.” LeBlanc says this could be addressed with increased public transit, and by ensuring that fans have reason to come early to the game and leave late, staggering the traffic flow.

That’s an optimistic view. But this idea of bringing the CFL to Halifax, from the outset, has not been lacking in that.

Scott Stinson is national sports columnist for Postmedia News.

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