A year ago, Halifax council approved a conditional, $20-million contribution for an envisioned multi-use stadium that could one day be home to a proposed CFL expansion team.
Since then, much has changed.
Unforeseen circumstances, prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, and other things have put off plans for a stadium and slowed the pace of progress on placing a potential Canadian Football League franchise in the Halifax region.
The business group hoping to get a stadium built and establish a CFL team here remains committed to its goals, even if its ultimate objective continues to be subject to a period of pause.
Gary Drummond, one of the principal proponents of the proposed Atlantic Schooners, told Postmedia in November that if the league resumes play next year, the team could be ready to play the 2022 season at Saint Mary’s University or in Moncton, while a stadium is constructed. “We could do that for two years if we chose to, but certainly one year would be quite possible,” he said.
The CFL cancelled its 2020 season because of COVID-19. One of the games that was never played was a neutral-site match, in Halifax, between the Toronto Argonauts and Saskatchewan Roughriders.
A municipal staff report presented to council on Dec. 10, 2019, recommended councillors “provide for a one-time contribution of $20 million towards the cost of construction of a community stadium to be payable upon substantial completion of construction.”
The report said the proposed stadium would cost between $100 million and $110 million, and have 12,000 permanent seats. Another 12,000 temporary seats could be added for events, it said.
“A comprehensive transportation plan and traffic-impact study” covering the eventual proposed site is another of the municipality’s conditions.
“The proponent is responsible for any traffic or transportation improvement costs determined through a traffic study in the same manner as any other developer,” the staff report said.
Council’s vote last year on the $20-million pledge was 10-7 in favour.
A new Halifax regional council was sworn in after the municipal election in October; five of those who supported the contribution in 2019 are no longer council members.
A sixth, Mayor Mike Savage, expressed doubt in a HalifaxToday.ca interview in September that a proposed stadium project, at this point in time, was prudent.
“It’s always been my view that a stadium at the right price would be good for Halifax,” he said. “I still believe a city of our size should have a stadium but now does not appear to be the right time.”
A seventh supporter on council, David Hendsbee, feels the project should be shelved.
“I do still support the notion of a stadium but not at this time,” said the veteran councillor, who represents Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore.
“This project should be deferred indefinitely. We need to get through this pandemic first,” Hendsbee said last month via email.
Another stadium supporter, Coun. Tony Mancini (Harbourview-Burnside-Dartmouth East), said he also wants the stadium proposal on the back burner.
“This is off the table,” he said in an email to HalifaxToday.ca. “It is another world because of COVID-19. There is no appetite to explore a stadium today.”
Stadium backers on regional council have said the municipality would benefit from a sports/entertainment venue such as the proposed development. Opponents have said other projects are higher on city hall’s priority list.
Since council voted last year for a conditional contribution to a proposed stadium, city hall has faced coronavirus-related challenges, such as a cash crunch, operating public transit during a pandemic and managing public places like municipal libraries, community halls and recreation centres.
It’s also seen other issues come to the fore. These include affordable housing, policing/race relations/social justice and climate change.
Due to lost revenue, such as transit fares, and other financial pressures linked to the COVID-19 situation, Halifax council last June voted 16-1 for a revised budget that included previously-unplanned cuts to the municipality’s expenses.
In an update to constituents after last December’s council decision, Mancini said that vote “does not confirm” city hall will be spending the $20 million. “There will still be a final vote to confirm the commitment.”
In his email, Mancini said managing the pandemic and its aftermath are paramount.
“Once we get through COVID-19 the priority has to be getting businesses back and running, municipal services back up and running at 100 per cent and growing our economy and population before we could consider the December 2019 motion,” he said.
Drummond said last month should council’s $20-million contribution not be available when it’s needed, the quest for a stadium and CFL team could still proceed.
“It wouldn’t be a death knell,” he told Postmedia, but would make building a venue more difficult.
CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie has said the league’s expansion plans remain focused on the Halifax region.
Meanwhile, the ability to kick off a 2021 football season is still unknown. If it takes place, the first exhibition game would be played on May 23.
Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth