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Walling: Halifax stadium could still be a decade away

Alex J. Walling, TSN.ca
4/8/2012 9:09:43 PM
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Halifax still doesn't have a stadium of any kind and it seems they will not have one in many a year. Hopes for a stadium in this decade appear slim.

The reason is there is simply no leadership for such a project.

Recently Halifax council voted by a margin of 22-1 to not go after a stadium for the FIFA 2015 soccer games that are going to be held in Canada.

The Canadian Soccer Association did everything possible to help Halifax's case. They approved a site even though there was not a stadium. Then the association gave Halifax a three month extension which ran out on March 31.

Soccer Canada wanted to hold some FIFA games here, but Halifax didn't deliver.

This was a gigantic mess from the beginning and it can be traced to City Hall and the provincial government.

But let's backtrack for a moment.

In the early 1980's, Halifax applied for a CFL franchise. They put down the $25,000 application fee but didn't meet the league's $250,000 franchise fee.

The Atlantic Schooners were supposed to be here in the early 80s and the late J.I. Albrecht was the front man. That's as close as this area got.

Federal funding was promised but pulled back during the Schooners application and it seems the only remnants we have of those days is the old New England scoreboard allegedly stored somewhere in Halifax.

On a clear Sunday morning in 1990, a Hamilton radio station (CKOC) broadcast that the TigerCats - under Harold Ballard's ownership - were pulling up stakes and coming to Halifax. "Get on the big story," the TSN assignment editor told me. I told him he was living in dreamland and that Saint Mary's Stadium could only hold eight or nine thousand and that was for the Atlantic bowl.

It was a false alarm and the Tiger-Cats stayed in the Steel city.

In June of 2005, Toronto and Hamilton played an exhibition CFL game in Halifax to around 17,000 at SMU stadium. Some 10,000 temporary seats were shipped in.

Fast forward to the present and it is now official and there will not be a stadium in Halifax for the 2015 Women's World Cup.

The stadium would have cost between $60-70 million and Halifax was prepared to put in $20 million towards the project.

But, the line most used by the city's councilors was: "we couldn't find other partners."

By partners they mean the federal and provincial governments which have helped build stadiums in many provinces.

The Manitoba provincial government has put in lots in the new CFL Stadium for Winnipeg and the Quebec government will be in the forefront of a new $400 million NHL-calibre hockey facility announced recently.

The city of Halifax put out a call for the private sector to see if they could come up with money to help build a stadium and while seven companies answered the call, none offered money for construction.

In most stadiums across this country the partners consist of the city in question, the provincial government - often the biggest contributor - and, at times, the federal government.

But, in this case the City of Halifax was the only partner to sign on and it could not or would not handle the entire cost.

The city needs to learn and realize that private investors such as the Irvings, McCains and Ganongs don't build stadiums but rather deal in gas and oil, frozen fries and chocolates.

But these companies will probably help out in naming rights and luxury boxes once a stadium is announced. Few private companies ever pay for the actual construction of a facility.

In the mid-1990s Bathurst, N.B. built a new ice arena and fell $4 million short. They approached the Irvings for the shortfall.

The Irvings agreed to the cost on the condition that the stadium be named after the late Mr. Irving. The K.C. Irving Memorial Centre arena has graced Bathurst for the past 15 years.

Halifax came very close to getting a stadium when they went after the Commonwealth Games in 2006. The games were supposed to cost $785 million. The feds pledged $400 million and the province around $300 million but when projected costs accelerated to upwards of $1.7 billion the province and city pulled the plug.

Part of the infrastructure included a 40,000 seat stadium which would have accommodated major concerts and as possible CFL team with plenty of room for soccer.

But, at a projected $1.7 billion with costs possibility hitting the $2-billion mark by 2014, it was simply too much of a risk.

So Halifax without a stadium now or in the future and can rule themselves out of any CFL talk for years to come.

Which leaves Moncton: a city that has a stadium and has already staged two regular-season CFL games.

"Moncton is alone in Atlantic Canada with a decent facility that can be expanded for CFL," a City official told TSN.ca.

So how is the future looking for Atlantic Canada's biggest and most prosperous city in regards to a stadium?

How about bleak?

Over the last 10 years there has been one person who both believed in a stadium and the CFL in Halifax and - most importantly - he was in a position to do something about it.

That man is Fred MacGillivray, who retired three years ago from his role as CEO of the Trade Centre Limited which runs Halifax's Metro Centre.

In his tenure, then-CFL Commissioner Tom Wright was brought to Halifax three times in an 18-month period. That has ceased since McGillivray retired and I haven't seen Mark Cohon - Wright's successor - anywhere around town.

There is simply no leader, no public figure, and no one to champion the charge for a stadium or a CFL team.

It is truly amazing what the city of Moncton has done in the last 10 years. Some feel Halifax is 10 years behind Moncton in getting a stadium. Others think after this latest Halifax move they are further behind than that.

In the past Halifax has always been in the discussion for CFL franchise. It was with the Schooners 30 years ago and continued to be mentioned over the years as a candidate along with Quebec City and Moncton.

While Quebec City has come a long way in the last 15-20 years with football on all levels and have the best CIS program in Canada, I don't know how my hometown would fare with a CFL team.

But like Halifax they don't have a stadium and with the very recent announcement of an NHL-calibre facility one wonders if there's money left over for a CFL-type stadium in this city.

Also, would the college game - which often draws 15-18,000 - suffer with a CFL team?

It will be interesting to see if Quebec City gets an NHL team and whether or not that will affect the college football crowds.

Laval's football program became such a sports force in Quebec after the program became very good in the mid-90s and the departure of the NHL's Nordiques to Colorado left a void in the city's sports scene.

"We came in at the right time," Michael Belanger, then communications officer for Laval told TSN.ca. "The Nords left and there was a big void in the sports world, in print and on radio and TV. The Laval football team and their national success helped fill that void."

So for now talk of CFL expansion "out east" may be limited to Quebec City and Moncton.

There's lack of leadership at the civic and provincial levels, in Halifax, for such a project. And that's a shame.

It makes one wonder how they ever got stadiums in Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina.

But whatever that formula was has not yet been discovered by Halifax.

Fore TSN.ca I'm Alex J. Walling.

Alex J. may be reached via email at: ajw@eastlink.ca
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