There was a lot of attention on Tuesday’s Council meeting, with the stadium report grabbing all the headlines. While much was made of the stadium topic, what was actually before us was simply a staff report setting out some very high-level details and requesting authorization to gather both more information and do a detailed review of Maritime Football League Partnership’s business case. That was it. No approvals, no site plan, no specific number of what HRM would pay. Staff were simply checking in and asking if they should continue the analysis. I have some serious reservations about this project and, frankly, doubt what emerges will be something I can support, but I concluded there was enough there to warrant a detailed look at the pros and cons. Here’s my take on where we’re at.
Stadium (the money): Stadiums are never built on private money alone. They’re hybrid facilities that provide both public and community benefits (how much the community benefits is a subject of much debate). There is no model that exists that will see the private sector build a stadium in HRM or anywhere else in North America by itself. So the fundamental question here is, do we want a stadium and if so, at what price?
My answer is I would like to have a stadium, but when I look at it in relation to other capital priorities, such as delivering the Integrated Mobility Plan and reinvesting in Parks and Rec, it’s very firmly in my “nice to have” category. There is no money tree at City Hall and spending on a stadium inevitably means not doing other things. We have a very long list of capital projects that will provide way more bang for the buck in terms of improving people’s day-to-day lives. As a result, I can’t support HRM making a big investment in a stadium. This needs to be primarily driven by the private-sector.
After reading the report on the weekend, I really considered voting against further analysis because the report left open a direct capital contribution, a tax deal to cover financing, and possibly ongoing contributions towards maintenance. During the presentation, our CAO clarified that what HRM is really looking at is tax increment financing. What that means is HRM would contribute by giving up the property tax that the stadium and associated development would have paid. HRM’s contribution would be whatever the value of that tax revenue is, topped up by a provincial contribution, possibly through an increase in the hotel tax or a car rental tax. This approach differs from the Nova Centre significantly since the Nova Centre model committed HRM to set payments that are independent of the property tax revenue collected. With the Nova Centre, the risk of tax revenues being less than expected (as has proven to be the case) was all on HRM. We don’t want to do that again!
Opting to not collect taxes on a project that otherwise wouldn’t exist is an approach that I’m willing to explore. It fits with where I see this in terms of priority and it would be unlikely to have a big impact on other municipal projects. The devil in the details will be how much of Shannon Park is included in tax increment financing? Building a stadium in Shannon Park won’t draw significant new residents to HRM, but it could redirect some of the demand that exists to that neighbourhood. As a result, I’m not interested in a tax increment model that includes all of Shannon Park and I indicated on Tuesday that if that’s what comes back, I won’t support it. The tax increment model has to relate to the portion of the development that is truly new activity. If not, we risk giving away tax revenue on development that would have happened anyway.
Stadium (the risk): I’m concerned that this project is high-risk based on how other stadium deals have turned out. If things don’t go according to plan, the private sector always has the ability to walk away. Municipalities can’t. I’m also concerned about how viable a CFL team really is. If we get a CFL team, HRM would be one of the smallest markets in the whole league. The only comparable to us would be Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan has always been the Green Bay Packers of the CFL, an exception that proves the rule. Other larger cities, including Ottawa and Montreal, have lost their CFL teams several times in the past due to financial difficulties. I asked staff as part of their review to carefully consider how sound Maritime Football’s model is in the absence of a CFL team. Does a stadium have enough other demands to make it work without the CFL or does the whole thing fall apart if the team fails? We need to be sure this is doable without the CFL as I think it’s a real risk that the team won’t draw enough support to be viable in HRM over the long-term.
Stadium (the location): I did want to touch on Shannon Park as a potential location for a stadium. Canada Lands Company has completed a plan for Shannon Park that would see the property redeveloped as a mixed-use neighbourhood. That Plan seems to have strong community support and the late-breaking news that Canada Lands Company and Maritime Football are in discussion about Shannon Park has caught a lot of people by surprise (including me).
Before the report, I was expecting to vote against the stadium once a location was set because I figured it was heading for the suburbs. A suburban site, like Dartmouth Crossing, would have the advantage of having better road access, but it wouldn’t provide HRM with the best bang for the buck in lots of other ways. The planning experience with stadiums from elsewhere strongly suggests that they provide the most to cities when they’re located in places that can take advantage of existing infrastructure rather than creating a whole bunch of new stuff. Downtown areas are generally perfect because they have structured parking, transit, and lots of existing hotels, bars and restaurants. A suburban location, would at best, miss out on these opportunities to reinforce what already exists and, at worst, could draw activity away from the core. Putting a stadium in a business park is the very opposite of the Centre Plan’s spirit and would be counter-productive. Shannon Park doesn’t tick all the boxes in terms of existing infrastructure, but it’s an area that HRM wants to see redeveloped and that could be connected to Downtown via transit. It’s far better than a business park.
The one big caveat I have about Shannon Park is that a stadium can’t be allowed to dominate. Stadiums tend to be all or nothing facilities that are either bustling with people or have no one around. There isn’t much middle ground and that can be hard to build a vibrant community around. Shannon Park’s a dead-end and isn’t going to ever have a lot of passing through traffic. Letting most of the site become a stadium and a sea of parking would create a dead space and would be a planning disaster. So far, the proponents, or perhaps Canada Lands, seem to be aware of that risk as they’re proposing to use 20 acres of Shannon’s 82 acre site. How the stadium is arranged and what is done with the other 62 acres will matter a great deal.
So why consider Shannon Park after all the other visioning that’s occurred on the site? No plan can ever anticipate every possibility. When Canada Lands was carrying out consultation on Shannon Park, a stadium wasn’t in the mix because there was no credible plan for one. Plans guide us, but they’re not meant to lock us in forever. We need to carefully consider unforeseen opportunities and circumstances when they arise. If a stadium proceeds, we’ll need more details about what’s proposed for Shannon Park. They’ll need to be public consultation on whatever the revised plan is to see if people are interested in changing the vision for the site. If this proposal gets that far, I’m not afraid to have that conversation.
Floating Yellow Heart: I did bring the issue of Floating Yellow Heart in Little Albro Lake to Council. Floating Yellow Heart is a lily species that is native to Asia and Europe. It was unfortunately sold as an ornamental plant here in North America and in calm bodies of water, it forms a dense mass that crowds out native species, reduces oxygen levels, creates mosquito habitat, and severely impacts the ability of people to boat and swim. It’s a real menace that’s only positive feature is its flowers. Floating Yellow Heart was identified in Little Albro back in 2007 and since then it has taken over the entire shoreline of the lake. There is virtually no native vegetation left in the shallows of Little Albro and using the lake for recreation has become impossible.
We’re lucky that Little Albro Lake drains directly to the harbour, which has, so far, contained Floating Yellow Heart. Unfortunately, if we don’t do something, it’s unlikely to stay contained in Little Albro Lake forever. The seeds of Floating Yellow Heart have tiny little burrs on them that are designed to cling onto wildlife, allowing the plant to hitch a ride and spread between unconnected bodies of water. It can also regrow roots from fragments of the plant, which means that it can often be accidentally spread by boats (luckily there isn’t much boating on Little Albro). If Floating Yellow Heart gets out of Little Albro it could have major implications for swimming, canoe/kayak, and boating in Dartmouth. The native weeds that have been causing problems on Lake Banook are a minor nuisance compared to what Floating Yellow Heart could do to our lakes.
Over the last two years, I have met several times with the Little Albro Lake Residents Association in hopes of developing a community-led response to the problem. Floating Yellow Heart is very hard to deal with, but it has been successfully dealt with by the Halton-Peel Woodlands and Wildlife Stewardship Council in Georgetown, Ontario. Floating Yellow Heart was identified in a pond in Georgetown’s Dominion Gardens Park and the fear was that the plant would eventually spread into the Credit River watershed. The municipality drained the pond and applied herbicide, but the plant bounced back when the pond was refilled, so the Stewardship Council got involved. The Stewardship Council opted to treat the plant like you would a weed in your garden: pull it out and repeat until it fades away. Over the course of three years, the Stewardship Council has almost completely eradicated Floating Yellow Heart from the park. I had hoped to support a similar effort here, but, unfortunately, there just isn’t the capacity in the Little Albro neighbourhood. The number of households right on the lake is small and many of them are seniors. The scale of the problem and work involved is daunting and it’s become clear to me that a response from government is the only way that anything will happen.
With a community-led response off the table, I have had to go to Plan B and ask HRM to look into the issue. This won’t be an easy problem to get government action on because invasive species in lakes is a provincial responsibility. HRM gets involved in lakes because of its mandate for recreation, but the environmental piece is technically provincial responsibility. When the problem was identified in 2007, then Councillor Jim Smith asked for a staff report that came back recommending a focus on the containment in the short-term while a Provincial strategy was developed. Nothing has occurred since and it’s time to revisit the issue before it becomes something that there is no hope of controlling. My colleagues supported my request for a staff report, but I know they’ll likely be reservations about HRM getting involved in this issue. We’ll see what recommendations come back from staff.
- Approved several military fly-pasts for Remembrance Day
- Council completed its mid-term reappointments to its various committees (I’m still on Community Planning but swapped Appeals for Transportation and yielded the Library Board to Councillor Outhit)
- Declared surplus a piece an HRM owned house on Bayers Road that was bought to subdivide off a portion of the frontyard to enable the future Bayers Road bus lane project
- Approved entering into an agreement with Frontier Networks to allow the newcomer to
- Authorized the sale of the old Terence Bay Volunteer Fire Station for less than market value ($1) to the Terence Bay Community Hall Association so that the Association can continue the building’s role as a community hall
- Adopted a new bylaw and administrative order around private roads
- Referred a funding request from Nova Multifest to the 2019/2020 Regional Special Events Grant program
- Approved funding for the next phase of the St. Paul’s Church walls restoration at Grand Parade
- Gave first reading to allow future public hearings for multi-unit residential projects at the Ben’s Bread property on Quinpool and at a former gas station site at the corner Herring Cove Road and Sussex Street
- Set in motion changes to the Cornwallis Committee to allow the Committee to reconstitute itself as formally a joint committee in partnership with HRM and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs
- Requested a staff report on creating a Climate Change Directorate and Climate Change Action Plan