Municipality agrees to negotiate lease for 7,000-seat CPL pop-up stadium at historic Wanderers Grounds site
By Matthew Gourlie
Halifax Regional Council had questions and concerns about putting a 7,000-seat pop-up stadium for a Canadian Premier League team at the historic Wanderers Grounds.
In the end, however, they had no opposition.
The council unanimously approved a proposal to execute a rental agreement with Sports & Entertainment Atlantic (SEA) for the use of the Wanderers Grounds to host a professional soccer team by a 16-0 margin.
The vote paves the way for Halifax to join the Canadian Premier League for its inaugural season.
“I think this is going to be a strong, positive addition to my neighbourhood and I look forward to walking down to see how it all turns out,” said Councillor Waye Mason.
The Municipality will negotiate a three-year deal with a three-year option with SEA. Initially, SEA sought to have control over the facility, but the Municipality continues to maintain direct control of the facility and Mason, who represents the district of Halifax South Downtown where the Wanderers Grounds is located, proposed eight amendments to the proposal while endorsing the plan. Chief amongst them was considerations for the visual impact at street level of the stands along Summer and Sackville Streets — that face the Halifax Public Gardens — and removal of those two stands at the end of the season.
The number of large-scale matches or events in the full-stadium configuration will be limited to 14 (which would accommodate a full CPL season, including playoffs, for an eight-team league) and there would be an annual review to address issues and the impact of the stadium.
“I met with (owner and president) Derek Martin from SEA and I said ‘this might be a good idea, but it’s really hard to look people in the eyes and say ‘yeah it’s temporary, it’s going to be up for three years.’’ That is a hard thing for us to say,” Mason said. “(Martin) has agreed and is comfortable with taking down the Summer and Sackville sides. That will vastly minimize the impact that it has on the other users down there and it will not give the impression that the site has been given over to private use fully for the next three to six to eight years.
“With those amendments I think we’re in a place where the majority of residents are going to understand that we are mitigating and minimizing the impact. There will be an annual review. If there are problems, if there are drunken football hooligans running the streets on Summer Street and Bell Road, the deal is off. I don’t think that is going to happen.”
The HRC received many letters and emails opposing the plan and the Friends of Halifax Common went so far as to question the legality of the proposal based on the 1994 Common Plan for the area.
“I have no reason to argue with the legal opinion offered by the city solicitor that it can go-ahead,” Mason said.
“There has been a lot of good discussion about this, a lot of interest. I am frustrated. There are some people in the community, though, who have been saying… and quite loudly banging the drum saying ‘stop the building of a private, for-profit stadium on the Common.’ I think that’s unfortunate because that’s not what the staff report says,” Mason added.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II visited Halifax and crowds flocked to the Common to see him. Coun. David Hendsbee quipped that “if the Pope was to come to town today, would he be opposed by a backlash from the residents ‘I don’t want to hear the blessings of the Pope on the Commons’ invading their peace and tranquility?”
The Wanderers Grounds site was initially used in the 1880s as the home for the Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club and used primarily for rugby. The land reverted back to the Municipality after the Second World War who have maintained it since. The four-hectare site features a lawn bowling green, and has been used for soccer, rugby, football, lacrosse and ultimate frisbee in recent years.
The location — nestled between the Halifax Citadel, the Halifax Public Gardens and a cemetery — is both historic and leaves it ideally located blocks from the downtown core.
“The big thing here is that it is municipal land, but we’re not being asked to contribute a big pot of money to make this go. So that’s even better,” said Coun. Sam Austin. “It starts to fall into being almost too good to be true.”
The 7,000-seat pop-up stadium would feature 5,500 seats, a thousand bleachers on one end and then standing room for 500 in the proposed open-air bar on the Summer Street end.
The new facility is expected to get its first use this fall when Soccer Nova Scotia aims to host an event on the site.
“The Wanderers Ground is, in my opinion, one of the most under-utilized assets we have in the Municipality. It’s more than just a dog park in my opinion. It’s an unofficial dog park right now — we play a little bit of rugby, a little bit of soccer and a few other things — I really think this facility can be used more year round,” Hendsbee added.
Deputy Mayor Steve Craig said the proposal was “the best of both worlds” in that they received an unsolicited bid to upgrade a facility the Municipality was already seeking to upgrade. Craig noted that recently the site wasn’t useable for rugby because of its disrepair.
The history of Halifax and Dartmouth features plenty of failed attempts to build a major outdoor stadium.
The Canadian Football League awarded an expansion team to the region for the 1984 season, but the Atlantic Schooners failed to launch when federal and provincial funding for a stadium in Dartmouth couldn’t be secured. In November of 2015 the HRC voted 9-7 against purchasing land to be used to build for a 20,000-seat CFL stadium.
“There was an opinion in this community that we were a Municipality that was consistently saying ‘no’. Well what a day today,” said Coun. Tony Mancini. “It’s interesting. We had lots of letters. They were very articulately written, but some of those same people opposed that are opposed to this pop-up stadium were also opposed to the (Emera) Oval. And look at what that oval has done for this community. It’s amazing.”
The Emera Oval was built on the Commons for the 2011 Canada Games. The Oval was to be removed after the Games, but when the public showed up in droves — with crowds between one and two thousand per day for free public skating before the Games began — its overwhelming popularity resulted in it becoming a permanent fixture.
Should Halifax land a CPL team, as expected, they would be the second professional team for the region.
In 1991, the Nova Scotia Clippers played a single season in the Canadian Soccer League. The Clippers played at Beazley Field in Dartmouth, which is nearly 9 km from downtown Halifax. The Wanderers Ground is a little over a kilometre uphill.
That downtown location is the key to SEA and the CPL’s vision for a successful team in the city.
“I know we’ve looked at stadiums before in our community and I feel like we’ve always been chasing the big thing,” Austin said. “I think this is right-sized and it’s in the best location going. You couldn’t ask for a better spot in terms of this being close to downtown.”
“We’re looking for a vibrant downtown,” Mancini said. “I too, support this whole-heartedly. I’m excited about it. Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s look at it for three years. Let’s have the rules in place, let’s watch what is going to happen, but I think we’re all going to be quite pleased.”