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Find a stadium solution that doesn't bankrupt Nova Scotians

November 10, 2018
Find a stadium solution that doesn't bankrupt Nova Scotians

This column was published in the Chronicle Herald on November 10, 2018.

A new $190-million stadium in Halifax would be great, but taxpayers can’t afford it and the pro sports executives at Maritime Football Partnership Limited say they can’t either. So, let’s find a solution that brings a CFL team here without bankrupting Nova Scotians.

In addition to expecting taxpayers to cover most or all of the construction bill, these executives are telling taxpayers to assume the financial risk of their 24,000-seat stadium complex. That risk is huge.

In Manitoba, the government has written off at least $200 million in debt for Winnipeg’s new CFL stadium, for which that province paid out the nose to finance through grants and loans.

Just like in Halifax, Manitoba politicians assured taxpayers that Tax Increment Financing – a promise of revenue from development around the stadium – would pay the bills. It completely failed. Development stalled and the revenue did not materialize. The team is unable to even pay the interest on its debt.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister now calls the Winnipeg stadium financing plan “an unsustainable scam.”

Halifax councilors peddled similar revenue promises for the convention centre and taxpayers here are now paying an additional $18-million deficit as a result. Tenants didn’t swarm to fill the surrounding offices, and, like in Winnipeg, the revenue didn’t roll in.

The report given to HRM council says the construction costs of a stadium would be up to $190 million, but that number is vague. Even after more analysis is done, the costs of unforeseen construction delays and snowballing debt interest payments won’t be included.

Council is already discussing costly infrastructure upgrades to Shannon Park and grandiose new expenditures such as a high-speed ferry. Unsurprisingly, the sports executives are on board with that idea. With pro sports facilities, taxpayers don’t know the price until it’s too late.

The executives are pulling promises of job creation and tax revenue out of thin air. Even at the NFL level, leading economists say those claims are garbage. Sports stadiums do not generate significant economic growth and the resulting revenue is not enough to cover the taxpayer costs.

A CFL team is only guaranteed to play nine home games each year. Using the stadium for multiple purposes may draw some profit, but not nearly enough.

Building a new 24,000-seat stadium will lose untold millions that could have gone to transit, hospitals, schools and relief for overtaxed Haligonians.

On top of that, the report suggests that HRM convince the province to let it raise tourism-related taxes, putting a strain on the industry and making Halifax a more expensive place to visit. Incredibly, Premier Stephen McNeil is open to the tax hikes.

This patchwork plan is a bad deal for taxpayers. Instead, let’s look at all options to bring a CFL team to Halifax without hosing Nova Scotians, starting with creative partnerships.

Maritime Football could consider working with Saint Mary’s University, home of legendary university football, to expand the centrally located Huskies Stadium, as SMU suggested in 2011.

To cover the costs, Maritime Football could partner with investors, offering stadium ownership, naming rights, shared profits for football games and profits from other events. Irving Field has a nice ring to it.

In Montreal, where Percival Molson Memorial Stadium is owned by McGill University, it’s used by both McGill’s football team and Montreal’s CFL team, the Alouettes.

If the largest Eastern Canadian cities are any indication, 24,000 seats may be unnecessary. Montreal averages an attendance of about 17,000 people, while Toronto brings in around 14,000. To gage interest, why not start playing at Huskies Stadium, then upgrade the capacity to fit the demand?

If building a new stadium is a must, then scale down the $190-million bells and whistles.

In Vancouver, a 27,500-seat football and soccer stadium called Empire Field was built for just $14.4 million. Empire Field was constructed as a temporary stadium for the BC Lions, but, with 20,500 roofed seats, luxury suites, a press room, artificial turf and flood lighting, it could have worked permanently.

When it comes to pro sports stadiums, taxpayers always get hosed. Pro sports executives are no fools – but neither are Halifax taxpayers. Let’s find a way to bring a CFL team here without going broke.

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