Editor: This column was first published in The Notebook on Nov. 9, 2018.
By Chad Bowie
What a wonderful time for Nova Scotia.
The health care crisis has ended. Only a short time ago, medical professionals and everyday Nova Scotians alike lamented the Third World conditions of our health care system and the shortage of basic, needed medical services.
Today, we lead the country in health care delivery and our overabundance of doctors is creating new challenges.
The days of chaos and confusion in our education system are no more. Government and labour have set aside their petty differences and are working towards giving our young people the tools they need to compete globally. Our math and literacy scores are now among the highest in North America and surveys show Nova Scotia’s teachers are the most satisfied in the country.
Our economy, once stalled and deflated, is on fire. By modernizing and supporting traditional industries, developing our rich resources, cutting business taxes and reducing regulation by half, Nova Scotia has entered a new golden age of prosperity for all.
And so, now that the hard work is behind us and our wonderful province is finally on the right track, we can direct public funds to supporting glamorous, civic vanity projects, like the proposed Shannon Park CFL stadium for Halifax.
Spurred by the tantalizing prospect that a CFL team—maybe, someday, hopefully—could come our way, some political and opinion leaders are suffering from delusions of grandeur. In what we can only hope was a temporary, collective lapse of judgement, Halifax city council unanimously directed municipal staff to conduct a new study with the aim of determining whether a stadium is a viable endeavour.
Allow me to save taxpayers a lot of time and money by cutting right to the chase: it’s not.
The partners behind the proposed CFL bid have cleverly engaged the public in their mission by launching an early (and presumptuous) season ticket drive and a name-the-team contest.
It was, to be fair, an impressive public relations move. Still, it will take more than a good media strategy for the partners to distract from their real aim of securing a commitment for millions upon millions in taxpayer funding to develop the proposed stadium.
Across the country, there are examples of taxpayers funding stadiums with little to no sizeable return on their investment.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which does excellent work scrutinizing the way governments spend our money, recently drew attention to the case of Investors Group Field in Winnipeg.
Constructed to give the Winnipeg Blue Bombers a home, the stadium received generous supports from taxpayers in the form of loans from the government. To date, the Manitoba government has written off more than $200 million because the Bombers and stadium ownership consortium simply couldn’t make the necessary payments.
In Montreal, there’s a similar story to be told. When the management team of the Montreal Alouettes asked the city and provincial governments to fund the bulk of a $29 million investment to increase their home stadium’s seating capacity by 5,000, the politicians agreed. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
However, just last week the Alouettes announced they would be shrinking the size of the stadium. They call it a ‘reconfiguration’.
Sports welfare just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in other cities across Canada and, to date, no one has offered convincing evidence it will work here.
One can’t help but be reminded of former Premier Rodney MacDonald’s decision to pull the plug on Halifax’s 2014 Commonwealth Games bid after learning the price tag could top $2 billion.
Granted, MacDonald and others (mostly at the municipal level) were criticized for allowing the project to go as far down the line as it did, but ultimately the right decision was made. For those who take fiscal responsibility seriously, it could be considered one of MacDonald’s finer moments in office.
Ten years later, taxpayers are left wondering if any of our political leaders are prepared to show the same kind of leadership by speaking out against the proposed stadium.
Premier Stephen McNeil has opened the door–a crack–to helping cover stadium costs, so long as the funds don’t come from general revenue. He’s also open to helping with capital expenditures on infrastructure to develop Shannon Park. Some targeted tax increases, too, are on the table.
At first blush, it appears the premier may be willing to put his reputation as responsible steward of the public purse at risk to help make a stadium happen.
Of course, McNeil is in his second term already and is unlikely to find himself on the receiving end of much blame if things don’t pan out. For one of his high-profile potential successors, however, the stakes could be much higher.
For years Liberals have mused about the possibility of Halifax Mayor Mike Savage making the jump to the premier’s chair should McNeil call it quits. So far, Savage has walked a careful line on stadium funding by maintaining that more information is needed before deciding.
Recently the mayor told council members “there’s a lot of people that want a stadium at any cost, there are a lot of people that don’t want a stadium at any cost. I want a stadium at the right cost.”
Don’t we all? The reality is, those in support of a stadium will find reason for optimism in Savage’s words. For those opposed to a stadium, the same is true.
But Savage, if he is in fact considering a run at the province’s top job, must consider whether he’s prepared to assume the premier’s chair—and face the voters—with a 24,000-seat albatross around his neck.
Chad Bowie is a long-time conservative political strategist. He is also a direct marketing and political consultant. He owns Chad Bowie Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.