The HFX Wanderers are in the early stages of pitching a permanent outdoor stadium, saying the soccer team has outgrown the existing pop-up facility at the Wanderers Grounds.
“I think we’ve done the best with what we have,” Derek Martin, president and founder of the HFX Wanderers Football Club, told Global News in an interview.
“It was always our intent to use this as a proof-of-concept, to show the public that this was, in my opinion, the best location for an outdoor sports and entertainment venue in Halifax.
“And I think our success to date has certainly proven that.”
As it stands, the current site in the heart of Halifax has a capacity of about 6,500. During a recent game against the Toronto FC, fans were “filling every nook and cranny,” Martin said.
Typically, games at the Wanderers Grounds average about 6,000 people in attendance. Martin said it would be “viable” for the proposed permanent stadium to seat up to 10,000.
It would also include better infrastructure to better serve the fans, he said.
“You know, getting rid of portable toilets, no running water, inability to serve food,” said Martin.
“It’s at the stage now where I think we’ve proven that (the location) works and we’d like to see something a little bit better for our fans and for the citizens of Halifax to enjoy.”
Martin said the venue could also host rugby tournaments – “Rugby and soccer work really well together because they both prefer to play on natural grass, they don’t damage the grass in the way that American football would” – and may even set the stage to bring a professional women’s soccer team to the city.
“That’s something that we think would be a great fit with a new venue,” he said.
Another stadium pitch
This isn’t the first time a stadium has been proposed in Halifax. Pre-pandemic, Schooner Sports and Entertainment hoped to land a CFL franchise in the Halifax area with a proposed $110-million stadium.
While Halifax Regional Council voted in 2019 to provide $20 million to help build it, councillors decided in 2021 to discontinue work on the project indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, with the announcement of Touchdown Atlantic coming to Nova Scotia this summer, CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said he is still very committed to expanding the league to the Maritimes, and they were “quietly working behind the scenes” to make it happen. There have been no updates since then.
The CFL stadium was a controversial proposal, due in part to its cost, as well as its proposed location in the Shannon Park area of Dartmouth, where bars and restaurants are lacking and access to public transit is less reliable.
But Martin said the proposed stadium at the Wanderers Grounds is different. The estimated cost would be $15 million to $20 million — a fraction of the proposed price tag on the CFL stadium.
As well, the HFX Wanderers are already an existing, established sports team.
“We’re a viable tenant. There’s never been a tenant before in any of these discussions, there was the hope that a tenant would come if you built it,” said Martin.
“We’ve gone the opposite approach, where we’ve proven that the tenant is viable and that we’re here for the long-term, and that we’ve got a very robust fan base who’s coming out consistently to our games.
“So I think that takes away a lot of the risk.”
The more central location of the Wanderers Grounds — a stone’s throw from bustling Spring Garden Road and the Citadel Hill National Historic Site — is also appealing, he said.
“At the end of the day, we’re just in an ideal location to help support all of the already existing local businesses that are here in the downtown,” said Martin.
He said the Wanderers are in “preliminary” discussions with the city and the province about the proposed outdoor stadium. If all goes well, Martin hopes to have it up and running by the 2024 season.
A ‘perfect location’
Sports economist Moshe Lander agreed that location is key. He said Atlantic Canada is “suffering from a lack of permanent facilities” and believes the Wanderers Grounds would be a great spot for one.
“It’s the perfect location. It’s the location I wanted the Schooners to go for,” said Lander, a professor of economics at Concordia University who also teaches part-time at Dalhousie University.
“Here it’s downtown, it’s right where people live, and you just have to look around and see all the construction, all the development, all the condos going up, and you realize this is where people want to be, so give them soccer where they are.”
While he supports the idea of a downtown stadium, he said public funds shouldn’t be used.
“I think that the mistake that comes here is that owners will always try and sell the public that public funds should be used because there is a public benefit, and there’s no real academic research that defends that,” he said, adding that there should be plenty of private sector support for the project.
But Lander noted that the more modest price tag will likely make this stadium more palatable to the public.
“When you’re starting from $15 to $20 million, the ask on the public purse is much, much smaller,” he said. “And so it’s much easier to convince levels of government … and it’s easier to sell to the public too.”
Area councillor Waye Mason did not respond to an interview request Friday, and a spokesperson for Mayor Mike Savage said he’s not commenting on the subject at this time.
As well, Sport Nova Scotia, which previously partnered with Schooner Sports and Entertainment, says it’s too early to respond to the proposal.
But Martin is hopeful the stadium will get support.
“I think much like art galleries, libraries — these are pieces of infrastructure that just make a city more vibrant, and it adds to the kind of the tapestry of what the city is all about,” he said.
“And I think that in that way, this fits.”