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.
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.
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):
- 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.
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.
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