What we talk about when we talk about football

While sports fans cheer the potential team, others oppose a stadium at Shannon Park—there’s a lot to understand before making up your mind

F“Argoooooos!” shouts a man.

“Suck!” chimes someone from the back of the room. A man on the other side of the room jumps up, smiling and pointing at the Argos logo emblazoned on his shirt as people clap and laugh. Someone toots a vuvuzela.

The hundred people in the ball room at a Dartmouth hotel are hardcore football fans. CFL logos appear on almost every shirt, hat, and even a few waving flags. They came to this spring meeting to learn the latest on Halifax’s hopes for a CFL team.

This isn’t the first attempt to bring CFL football to Halifax.

In May 1982, the CFL granted Maritime Professional Football Club (owned by John Donoval, an Ontario trucking executive and J.I. Albrect, the former Montreal Alouettes general manager), a conditional expansion franchise.

To seal the deal, the owners paid the CFL a $1.5-million expansion fee and, by the start of the 1984 CFL season, would build a 30,000-seat stadium costing approximately $6 million.

In November, the group announced the team name: Atlantic Schooners. The same week, both the federal and provincial governments told reporters they wouldn’t contribute. The mayors of Halifax and Dartmouth argued about the location endlessly in the papers.

On June 16, 1983, the day before the CFL’s deadline to secure stadium financing, Maritime Professional Football Club withdrew its application for the franchise and refunded season-ticket deposits.

Albrecht described the situation to the Canadian Press: “[The team] is in drydock and I say as far as I am concerned, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead and we have not yet begun to fight.”

That was the last serious plan to bring the CFL to Halifax for over a generation.

The crowd at the Dartmouth event came to see CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie. It’s the last stop on his cross-country trip proselytizing his vision for CFL 2.0, which includes a Halifax team.

“This is a part of the country that is intriguing. If you’re not from here, it’s on like everyone’s bucket list. All we need to do is get that football team here and we’ll have people pour in to be part of Schooners football and more importantly part of the Atlantic region and all of its people,” Ambrosie tells the cheering crowd.

There are similarities to 1982: out-of-town executives, the same team name, and location concerns.

Bruce Bowser is a partner in Schooner Sports Entertainment (SSE), the entity behind the team and stadium. He’s president and CEO of AMJ Campbell, Canada’s largest moving company. Though Toronto-based, he owns a condo in Dartmouth and grew up in Shannon Park.

Bowser’s partners in SSE are Anthony LeBlanc, formerly part of the Arizona Coyotes (NHL) ownership group, and Garry Drummond, former president of operations with the Coyotes. “I think what’s made this effort different from other attempts is that the ownership group actually has the funding to back this,” says Bowser. “It’s not one of these efforts where we’re coming and saying, ‘Give us the money and we’ll build it.’ We have the money.”

In March, Ambroise announced that Schooner Sports Entertainment committed “somewhere in the neighbourhood of $60 million” so far. The CFL endorses the group, contingent on HRM approving the stadium.

A rendering of the proposed stadium release by SSE on March 30, 2019.

At the road show, the floor opens up to questions.

“You keep talking about timeline,” ask a man in the crowd. “Will this be done before I’m dead? I mean, I’m 70 years old.” The crowd laughs.

SSE announced its intention for a Halifax team at the 2017 Grey Cup. In July 2018, HRM Council approved a motion to discuss the viability of a stadium with SSE.

A year after the first announcement, the team had a name and 5,000 fans paid deposits for season tickets. The city buzzed about plans to build a 24,000-seat stadium costing $170 million–$190 million.

By February, SSE scaled back its plan to a $120 million–$140 million stadium with 12,000 permanent seats, and the option to add 12,000 temporary seats as needed for CFL games and other large events. LeBlanc says the idea to build a smaller stadium to start came from Mayor Mike Savage. Other facilities, including BMO Field on Toronto, were built in similar phases to lower initial costs.

The revised estimate includes permanent seating, locker rooms, and food and beverage services. LeBlanc says SSE will contribute to that initial amount and cover the estimated $3 million–$4 million annual operating cost. Additional funding will come from public private partnerships, LeBlanc says, at a rate of about 50%.

Earlier this year the group hired several lobbyists. Federal funding isn’t usual for a stadium like this but also not out of the question. Ottawa contributed 47% of the building cost of Tim Horton’s Field, home of the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The funding was tied to the stadium hosting soccer for the 2015 Pan-Am Games. A similar event will be key to federal funding for SSE.

“The biggest thing that we’ve heard from our partners at government is that they understand there’s risk involved with anything like this and they’re trying to minimize that as much as possible.”

An HRM council report from October 2018 suggested tax incremental financing (TIF): The property taxes from the stadium and surrounding buildings would be reinvested in the complex’s $10 million annual debt financing.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because HRM implemented TIF with the Nova Centre’s Halifax Convention Centre. While it lowers risk, it isn’t risk free. Real-estate trends, building delays, and other external factors can delay opening and revenue. Until the stadium is operational, there’s no revenue to reinvest.

On the other side of the economic coin is the money HRM will see from the stadium. Before scaling back the stadium plan, Deloitte prepared an economic-impact analysis in May 2018.

Once operational, the stadium would contribute about $96.8 million to HRM’s GDP, of which $58.8 million would be labour income, and support about 1,459 full-time equivalent jobs. LeBlanc says these numbers are still accurate as the revised design requires the same amount of staff.

At press time, neither the municipality nor the province would comment on funding for the stadium. HRM’s email statement pretty much covers it: We can’t talk about a proposal we haven’t seen.

LeBlanc is quick to “take full discredit” for repeatedly telling media HRM staff would see the proposal “soon” over the last year.

“In a way, we were trying to rush things through,” he says. “After spending time and pulling ourselves back, and more importantly our new partnership with Sport Nova Scotia, we realized that we were trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. We were trying to jam something in that the community really didn’t want. I feel confident now with where we’re at.”

A rendering of the proposed stadium release by SSE on March 30, 2019.

SSE’s alliance with Sport Nova Scotia is unique and could become a model for other pro-sport and amateur associations, says Sport Nova Scotia CEO Jamie Ferguson. Sport Nova Scotia is a non-profit organization comprised of over 50 provincial sport organizations (PSOs).

The domed stadium could operate about 300 days per year; the average CFL team plays only nine to 11 home games, depending on playoffs. That offers an opportunity to host major tournaments (think FIFA Women’s World Cup), large-scale concerts, and amateur sport, says LeBlanc.

Ferguson says, after his initial discussions with PSOs and SSE, Sport Nova Scotia could book the facility up to 25 weeks per year for amateur and youth sport. He plans to meet with high-school and university athletics associations about the stadium.

“We know that cost is a barrier [to youth participating in sport], there’s no question,” says Ferguson. “For us this is an opportunity not just for additional programming … but it is also that opportunity for all of our groups that are non-profit to reduce costs. That’s something that might be passed directly on to parents or reinvested into additional programs.”

Not everyone is excited about the prospect of a stadium. For some, like Joanne Bernard, the location is the problem. Bernard was the MLA for Dartmouth North from 2013–17. “This is not political for me, I live and work here. This is a personal issue for me.”

In 2016, Canada Lands Company (CLC), a federal Crown corporation, demolished the former military community at Shannon Park. CLC’s parcel of land is about 33 hectares, half the size of Point Pleasant Park. Millbrook First Nation owns an adjacent four hectares, formerly the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove. SSE wants to buy about 8 hectares of the CLC land.

Before demolishing Shannon Park, CLC held public consultations about how the land should be used. “The sessions that I went to were packed,” Bernard recalls. “I thought it was very well laid out there was lots of explanation from Canada Lands about the process.”

The events featured a large map of the area, says Bernard, so “you could pin point on it where you lived so they knew exactly what the catchment area was for the people who attended the consultation sessions.”

Before it approves the sale, CLC says SSE and HRM must do further community consultations, and consult with Millbrook.

“What concerns me about this other round [of consultations] is that people who participated and gave their time, their expertise, and their advice in 2015–16 are going to say, ‘You know what? You didn’t listen to me then, why are you going to listen to me now?’” Bernard says. “They’re not going to populate that conversation and then people from other parts of the municipality who want a stadium in Shannon Park will come and skew the results.”

LeBlanc says further consultations were SSE’s plan “from day one” as “the concept of a stadium like this wasn’t on the table at the time [of the original consultations].” He says timing is still up in the air, but that consultations will happen after submitting the HRM proposal, to ensure the community get a full picture of what’s coming.

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