Halifax’s professional soccer team has outlined a vision for a permanent downtown stadium that would be the club’s new home.
Derek Martin, president of the Halifax Wanderers, presented the idea of a $40-million open-air stadium to the city’s community planning and economic development standing committee on Thursday.
“We have brought the community together, consistently drawing over 5,000 citizens and visitors in all kinds of weather for a shared experience,” Martin told the committee.
“The reality we face is that a pop-up [stadium] … does not serve the needs of a growing community here in Halifax that, simply put, deserves better.”
Martin’s company, Sports and Entertainment Atlantic, has had an agreement to rent the Wanderers Grounds from the city for a pop-up soccer stadium since 2017. The team has competed in the Canadian Premier League since 2019.
The contract was originally for three years, and has been extended since then with the most recent contract ending in 2024.
The new stadium would see the current metal bleachers and portable toilets replaced with permanent stands under an overhanging roof and a capacity of 8,500 — about 2,000 more than the current 6,500. Martin also said that would go up to about 13,000 capacity if people stood on the pitch for concerts or other events.
Martin said it’s important to “right-size” a stadium given that other sporting events like Halifax Mooseheads hockey games draw around 8,000 people now at the Scotiabank Centre,
There would be new washrooms, locker rooms, and concessions within the facility, while the existing viewing boxes made out of sea cans would remain.
Martin said he’d like the city to build and control the stadium, with the Wanderers contributing funds over a 30-year lease.
Remaining at the Wanderers Grounds is the ideal spot because people can walk there or take transit, Martin said, and nearby businesses get spinoff benefits of people gathering before and after the games.
Coun. Sam Austin said the idea has all the good economic and social factors that a previous pitch for a CFL stadium in Shannon Park lacked. The estimated price tag for that project was around $120-$140 million.
“I think the proof has been in the pudding in the [Wanderers] success in the city,” Austin said.
When asked by Coun. Trish Purdy if the Wanderers would also contribute to the up-front cost of building the stadium, Martin said “we’re open to talking about it.”
But Martin added the organization feels like they’ve “done our part” in investing millions of dollars over the past five years to prove the idea made sense.
Multiple groups have sent letters of support for the project, Martin said, including business associations, bars and restaurants, the YMCA, sports clubs, Soccer Nova Scotia, Rugby Nova Scotia and nearby Citadel High School — which does not have its own football field.
Martin said the new stadium would have a turf field and would allow club and school teams to use it year-round. Right now, keeping the current grass field to a professional standard means there has been much less community access than compared to the past 200 years.
The Wanderers Lawn Bowls have been on their neighbouring site since 1887, while the Wanderers Amateur Athletic Club used the field for cricket, rugby and soccer starting soon after. There have also been one-off professional sports events on the property over the years, like international rugby.
But Howard Epstein, board member of Friends of the Halifax Common, said that amateur distinction is key and it’s unfair for a private, professional team to profit off the public Common land.
“That is irresponsible on the part of city council, and I think probably illegal for them to proceed in that way,” Epstein said in an interview.
Legal action planned if stadium idea goes ahead
Epstein said the group wants the area to remain only for community use and the Wanderers should find another spot on the peninsula. If the city wants to move ahead with a stadium on the field the “only way” forward would be a public request for proposals.
Epstein also raised concerns about how often schools and clubs would realistically get to use the field.
The Friends of the Common have already sent the city a letter through a lawyer, informing them they plan to sue the municipality if they move ahead with the stadium with the Wanderers as lead tenant.
Martin said he’d presented his plan to other neighbours on the Wanderers Block, including the Friends of the Public Gardens and Halifax Lancers riding school and equine therapy centre.
Claire Halstead, operations manager with the Lancers, said in an interview Thursday their team is “closely reviewing” the proposal which has some new elements they had not seen before. She said those included new uses for a possible stadium like big events or concerts.
“Over the years we have worked closely with all of our neighbours and also our horses to ensure that we can all remain happy and healthy,” Halstead said.
There would be public consultation if councillors eventually agree to explore the idea, city staff said Thursday.
Martin said he’d like to see council approve the idea in 2024 so construction could start right away, with the stadium opening May 2025. With the 2026 FIFA World Cup being hosted across North America, Martin said the timeline would allow the Wanderers to pitch several countries on using Halifax as a pre-tournament city.