Council Update: Stadium Vote

Agenda December 10 here

Stadium: The stadium debate returned to Council yesterday with the completion of staff’s report on the Schooner’s proposal. The report was a far from glowing assessment. A lot of the concerns that staff identified, from infrastructure costs, to problems with the proposed tax district, to the CFL’s viability in Halifax, were concerns I spoke about when I put forward my motion to bail on the whole thing back in October! Staff basically recommended that Council reject all of the options presented by Schooner Sports and that Council, instead, provide an entirely new counter proposal. The staff recommendation is for a one-time municipal contribution of $20 million, but only if the Schooner’s find a location that’s better connected than Shannon Park. Staff also rejected the Schooner’s request to waive property taxes on the stadium, to share ongoing tax revenue through a Tax Increment Financing district, and to have HRM help pay for ongoing capital costs. The staff recommendation had little resemblance to the Schooner’s original proposal!

Although the staff recommendation was a major improvement, it was still not something I was able to support. My reasons are (1) the case hasn’t been made that a community stadium is actually needed, (2) I’m still concerned that the Schooners won’t be successful, and (3) HRM has limited capital dollars.

Community Use: In the HRM report and in the Schooner’s submission there is actually very little about how the stadium could be used for anything other than the CFL. There is a suggestion that it could be used for concerts (maybe one large one a year), but nothing to back that up. Staff identified in the report that HRM isn’t short on field space and they completely skipped over the fact that we already have a privately-operated indoor dome in the Woodside Industrial Park that is available for rentals and cost HRM $0 to build and operate. The staff report and submission from the Schooners really asks Council to take it on faith that there is a need for the stadium beyond the CFL. To spend $20 million, I expected more.

Inside the Woodside Dome

Risk: The second problem, is the CFL is an untested quantity here in Halifax. The Grey Cup game was recently played and there seemed to be little to no interest locally. Contrast that instead with the Jurassic Park public viewing party of the Raptor’s final run on Grafton Street where fans came out to celebrate a team that’s nearly 2,000 kilometers away! CFL attendance has been in decline, and Halifax would be the second smallest market in the league, second only to Saskatchewan. Basing a business model on Saskatchewan strikes me as saying that Portland, Maine should have an NFL team because Green Bay makes it work. Picking the outlier to try and prove a rule is a risky starting point! CFL teams have folded in the past in much bigger cities with much stronger football traditions. To assume that there isn’t a real risk that the team could fail is foolish.

So what exactly happens to HRM’s $20 million and the stadium if the team goes under? Does HRM end up having to buy and then operate a stadium that is way bigger than we need? Do we even want to buy it if there is no CFL team given that there mightn’t be a lot of need for it in terms of local sports use and it’ll be too big for most events? Do whatever conditions we negotiate for community access disappear if the team folds and a new owner takes over? We simply don’t know. Compared to the Schooner’s original proposal, staff did a good job in limiting the extent of the risk, but this, to me, is still a high-risk venture that we’re betting $20 million on. It may end up costing us much more than we think or we may get little back for the money we put in.

Build it but will they come? Toronto Argos attendance struggles

Capital Priorities: What really made me certain in my no vote, was the situation regarding HRM’s capital dollars. HRM is proposing to pay the $20 million contribution to the Schooners from our strategic capital reserve. The strategic capital reserve is a fund setup to save up for “signature” projects, and it specifically identifies the following as possibilities (list may change as Council is reviewing the reserve as part of this year’s budget):

  • stadium
  • Forum redevelopment
  • Cogswell redevelopment
  • new police station
  • fire department training facility
  • library facilities plan
  • cultural spaces
  • commuter rail/fast ferry

The strategic capital reserve has been largely built up year after year through a $0.01 increase in the property tax rate, and through the sale of surplus municipal lands. It is projected to have a $40 million available balance by 2023 when a payment to the Schooners is expected, reducing the 2023 balance to $20 million. In the debate, it was said or alluded to a few times that, since HRM has this reserve, providing $20 million to the Schooners won’t affect other projects or the tax rate. Both of those points are true in only the narrowest of interpretations.

There is no such thing as free money. It’s a finite resource and choosing to do one project, by necessity, means choosing not to do another. Funding the Schooners means something else has to give. HRM hasn’t identified exactly what project we might pass on or delay, but once the cash is gone, it’s no longer available.

A new police station is one of several other ways that $20 million could be spent

Anyone who says that the stadium won’t affect the tax rate, is technically correct since HRM is going to use its reserve. Where did the strategic capital reserve come from though? Taxes! The stadium won’t affect the tax rate now because it already has. We’ve been paying for it all along, it just wasn’t identified until now. Also, if HRM decides that we need to raise more tax revenue or borrow money to complete other projects that could have otherwise been paid for through the strategic capital reserve, then what is that situation really except for a financial domino affect of putting $20 million into the stadium? There is no free money and no freedom from consequence in the choices and priorities that Council sets. This is tax money and it means either not doing or delaying some other project or taking on more costs. It should stand on its merits, not be coached in a way that tries to suggest that it’s not a real cost or choice.

In that regard, HRM has been going through its capital budget and we currently don’t have money set aside to do a lot of things including:

  • finish the next phases of Transit’s Moving Forward Together Plan
  • implement the Integrated Mobility Plan’s ambitious vision of complete streets and transit, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure (some good projects underway but the total needed is staggering)
  • make transformational investments in the library system through the library’s new capital plan (a few branches have partial funding for renovations)
  • replace aging community centres that are well past their best before dates (George Dixon, Needham, Timberlea)
  • continue the success of streetscaping projects like Argyle (nothing funded beyond Spring Garden)
  • replace the Burnside Transit Garage, something that needs to happen to switch to electric buses in the future
  • replace our decrepit police station
  • start installing splash pads and other aquatics improvements as envisioned in our recently adopted strategy
  • the massive cost of getting carbon out of HRM’s operations

Obviously we can’t do all of that all at once, but that’s kind of the point about choices. The strategic capital reserve is for signature capital projects. My signature project is to focus on the stuff that improves everyday life. Stuff on the list above. Given that we don’t have enough money to pay for core municipal priorities, priorities that I hear far more support for from residents, I can’t justify spending $20 million on the stadium.

The stadium vote passed 10-7 with myself, Mason, Cleary, Smith, Whitman, Zurawski, and Outhit voting against. The next step will be for the Schooners to identify a new site that is acceptable to Council and, crucially. to convince the Province to provide them with the rest of the needed funding.

With HRM voting to provide funding, the next stop for Schooners? Province House

Other: The stadium was the major item on Council’s agenda, but we also did the following

  • Requested a staff report on purchasing land in Middle Musquodoboit for a possible playground/splash pad
  • Gave first reading to set a date for a public hearing regarding the proposed Old South Suburb heritage district and to consider the Spring Garden Road library site as a possible heritage property
  • Amended the Bedford Municipal Planning Strategy to allow for commercial and residential development by Cushing Hill in Bedford
  • Increased the consulting services contract for the Bayers Road Transit Priority Corridor
  • Authorized the CAO to formalize discussions with the Province, community partners, and stakeholders to develop a municipal drug strategy for supervised consumption/overdose prevention sites
  • Approved the plan to replace the Halifax Common pool
  • Gave first reading to set a date for a a public hearing for a 8 storey apartment building on the Bedford Highway near the intersection of Flamingo
  • Requested a staff report to consider re-registering St. Patrick’s rectory on Brunswick Street

27 Comments

  1. I do not agree with your assessment but thank you for explanation of your views. I hope others realize the importance of respecting others views regardless the topic.

  2. Thank you Sam. Agree with everything you’ve said 10000%. In my view, this is an embarrassingly poor idea and not at all how I would like to see that money spent. It could be used for so many better things that would have a positive impact on many more citizens. I was very hopeful for your motion in October and it’s disappointing to see the project moving forward in any regard. Thanks for all you do.

  3. I 100% agree with assessment and vote. What can we do next? Is there any way to avoid this waste of 20 million?

  4. It saddens me that HRM would commit this $20 million to a project that is not a priority and has been driven by a very narrow interest group who have no interest in bettering the community. It sets a very bad precedent. I have no idea if a stadium is a need or not because no independent, unbiased research supports the project. This should have been terminated yet it persists. I fear for what the next step is which is likely to identify a location which involves a piece of publicly owned land which they will seek for free. We have just set ourselves up for more demands. Meanwhile all the capitol needs you mentioned will go unfunded. Personally I think we have been conned.

  5. Sam, thank you for sharing why you voted “No”. I really appreciate your assessment and agree with you 100%.

  6. I was disappointed in the entire lack of a business plan from SSE or the organization that will own the stadium, or in HRM. In what other business are there investors that put up almost 20% and don’t have a place at the decision table? Make no mistake that this is a gift of 20 million to a private business. HRM will have no place at the table to get any ongong benefit from this Investment or to obtain any benefits, say from having input to special rates for HRM activities. We literally get nothing for this: no ownership, no profits, no vote in operations, no say whatsoever. This is bad investment and i doubt that any Councillor would have invested their own money for this with any expectation of a return. It is so easy to spend tax money. And if you believe that other projects wont suffer, then I have an investment for you.

    • You have articulated the core concerns i and many others have. I have huge problems with the “no strings attached” contribution. I am also concerned by the Premier’s response of leaving the door open to provincial support and possibly adding a tax to hotels and car rentals.

  7. At the end of the discussion on the stadium Mr Dube saw fit to correct’you when he said the proposed new police station is in the capital budget.
    It is not in the proposed 3 year capital budget, not in this document : https://www.halifax.ca/sites/default/files/documents/city-hall/regional-council/191210bc3.pdf

    I am aware of internal HRM documents which show an expenditure for a new police station of $1 million and estimated start date of April 1 2021; and then an expenditure of $79 million from 2022/23 through 2028/29 with funding from reserves.

    Not to mention New/expanded transit centre estimated at $112,500,000 last year and now vanished from the capital budget.

  8. I cannot believe City Council even entertained this proposal from the beginning. Of course Mike Savage is all for it for some reason and I wouldn’t doubt there is some form of private monetary gain for those who voted in favour of this gift. Wouldn’t be the first time. FIX what is needed FIRST. Only then can we look at something as extravagant as a CFL stadium. I’m still in shock. Not voting for Savage again.

  9. Thank you Sam. Well stated with the very realistic bottom line: Halifax (broadly speaking) absolutely does NOT need a stadium! If by some yet unheard from benefactor wished to step up and fully foot the entire cost with any other costs in perpetuity, then perhaps I could give a maybe. Let us all hope that the current provincial government declines any support for this behemoth as well!
    I invite all to think back to / look up the 1990’s Halifax is a “World Class” movement…

  10. Sam, disagree with your analysis completely. A stadium will be a welcome piece of multi-use infrastructure for the city of Halifax. Sam, you’re anti-stadium, anti-progress vote due to higher priority capital projects is just not believable when you voted to spend 70-80 million on renovating the city owned dilapidated Halifax Forum that will save three brick walls for nostalgia sake. That is a ridiculous amount of money that will turn into boondoggle because the city owns this property and will get fleeced by contractors. Knock the Forum down, sell the Forum lands, and co-build a new arena with the province in the south end and use the remaining funds to pay for the stadium. And you want to 15 million for a splashpad and pool. That is also an astonishing amount of money for a pool facility where city taxpayers will again be fleeced by contractors. 20 million for a large piece of infrastructure like a stadium built by private interests is a value proposition that will not come along in a long time. Sam, your anti-stadium position is demoralizing to the majority of Haligonians who want to take the city to the next level it so richly deserves.

    • Hi Greg. The Forum was actually the subject of my previous blog entry. Lots of misinformation about that project. It’s not $70-$80 million for a heritage restoration. Building a new Forum would cost $65 million to get a bare bones box like BMO or RBC. Saving and restoring the walls has a premium of as little as $6 million but as much as $21 million. If it’s $21 million, that’s all a bit much, but $6 million to preserve heritage and create a more interesting public building than we would otherwise get? That’s not such a bad deal when you consider the Forum could be with us for another 92 years. The Forum we, also, already own, and it provides recreation program on the Peninsula so letting it fall down isn’t really an option. HRM will be exploring real estate partnership opportunities to, potentially, reduce the cost. Anyway, here’s the entry

      https://www.samaustin.ca/council-update-roundabout-forum/

      • Sam, you will approve a swimming pool and Splashpad for 15-17 million at the drop of a hat, yet 20 million from the city for a major facility costing 6 times that is too risky for the city. I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t make sense. And the Dartmouth 4 pad was 43 million, not 65 million and only 2 rinks. I guess my issue is certain councillors want to throw large sums of money around for their projects that appear way overpriced, yet balk at stadium funding where we can leverage private interests to make Halifax a better place. Let’s just spend money on everything, after all, the residential and commercial deed transfer tax is swelling the city coffers with very large sums of money.

        • So the Common pool is very heavily used, and offers free recreation programming (a core municipal mandate) in close proximity to some of our most marginalized residents. You’re really comparing that to a stadium being proposed by millionaires? The Dartmouth Four Pad doesn’t have seating for several thousand like the Forum, no parking garage, and no multi-purpose event space. I’m sure the Forum project could be cheaper if we ditched some of those things too but then it wouldn’t be the Forum anymore. The Forum isn’t just a rink. As I said in my piece, we can afford the stadium, but we can’t afford everything we want to do so we have to make choices. It’s a question of priorities and I understand that your priorities and your assessment of risk is different than mine (if the team folds being left with a giant stadium with no anchor tenant that we don’t need in the absence of the CFL isn’t high risk????).

  11. Thank you, Sam: an excellent analysis. The good old boys’/girls’ network is in full swing – very obvious when you look at the votes. The whole thing is utter bollocks, and I’m disappointed, though not surprised, by Mike Savage’s support.

      • Greg, we need to FIX this city before we can gamble taxpayer dollars on something that isn’t a guarantee. We could likely end up holding the bag if this venture fails. I hope the Province doesn’t risk our money like this city did.

          • The Forum is part of the city that needs fixing because it brings in dollars. I don’t believe we need an Arts Centre. In my opinion we need to spend the money wisely and we’d be taking on a big risk with a CFL stadium; Halifax cannot accommodate it; our population is not big enough to keep if filled in order to turn a profit for anyone. If the goal is to make money off the CFL games, how many would be needed yearly. So far all I’ve heard is one, maybe two games played here a year.

          • If by “arts centre” you mean the new Art Gallery of NS that has nothing to do with HRM.It is a provincial project and has a huge set of its own issues, especially location which is just plain stupid. If there is a need for a stadium – which has not been at all demonstrated – than it should be put amongst all the other capitol priorities and funding assessed with direction made accordingly. There is a lot of work to be done to determine of a stadium is a good idea or not. The forum renewal has been on the books for years and detailed analysis was done to determine what to do about renewing it. It gets used a lot, as does the splashpad. Absolutely no one anywhere has as of yet demonstrated a need for a stadium. Three or four CFL games a year hardly justifies that kind of expenditure.

          • Forum brings in revenue? How? I would say it offsets costs, etc from bingo, etc. The Scotiabank generates revenue and tax dollars as would the stadium.

          • It’s been stated in some of the posts regarding the new stadium. It is used for more common things and for skating, events, etc. I would assume it’s cheaper to rent than the Scotiabank Centre. It also isn’t as costly to revamp as building a CFL stadium. As you stated, we also have the Scotiabank Centre so why the need for a new stadium. Just to watch a couple of CFL games?

          • If by “arts centre” you mean the new Art Gallery of NS that has nothing to do with HRM.It is a provincial project and has a huge set of its own issues, especially location which is just plain stupid. If there is a need for a stadium – which has not been at all demonstrated – than it should be put amongst all the other capitol priorities and funding assessed with direction made accordingly. There is a lot of work to be done to determine of a stadium is a good idea or not. The forum renewal has been on the books for years and detailed analysis was done to determine what to do about renewing it. It gets used a lot, as does the splashpad. Absolutely no one anywhere has as of yet demonstrated a need for a stadium. Three or four CFL games a year hardly justifies that kind of expenditure.

  12. I don’t agree with your thoughts surrounding the CFL’s popularity and I believe you could benefit with a little more research into the CFL itself. For instance, you use a picture of the Argos playing in the sky dome in front of a scattered crowd to illustrate their struggling attendance. They haven’t played in the sky dome for 4 years. if you were to use a picture of their current venue/crowd you’d have a much less compelling visual to represent your argument. Also, extrapolating Toronto’s support of the CFL to Halifax is impossible to do, they are completely different markets where the Argos have to compete with a very saturated market not only for sports but entertainment in general. Use Hamilton as a comparison and a much different picture is painted.

    • Better?

      Attendance has been falling steadily outside the core traditional football markets, but yet, we’re expected to believe, on faith, that we’re going to get the new Riders here? If the stadium happens, I really hope I’m wrong, but it’s not a bet I would make so I can’t justify betting public funds on it.

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