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Kelly’s folly 

Halifax’s bumbling mayor is pursuing a publicly funded stadium in exactly the wrong ways.

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There are too many other more pressing community needs to be able to elevate a recreational project when scarce capital resource must be diverted to solid waste, roads, water treatment, etc."

That quote is found on the second page of a 1997 thesis titled "A business plan for Bedford Memorial Sportsplex and the Bedford Memorial Sportsplex Foundation," submitted as a requirement for an Executive Masters of Business Administration issued by Saint Mary's University. The author: then-regional council member, now-mayor Peter Kelly.

In his thesis, Kelly went on to outline a proposal for public-private partnership to operate a Bedford Sportsplex. A private company called Private Recreational Investments would operate the Sportsplex at a profit, using a non-profit agency called the Bedford Memorial Sportsplex Foundation to pursue government funding for capital costs. The point of the P3 arrangement, Kelly made clear, was to keep the debt of the project off HRM's books.

Things have certainly changed: As mayor, Kelly now wants to commit the city to $20-million debt to fund a third of the cost of a proposed $60-million stadium, with the provincial and federal governments supposedly kicking in the remainder. A consultant's report on the stadium will come before Halifax council on December 6, at which time council will decide whether to pursue a stadium.

Still, I must say, I disagree with Kelly's thesis. First, the P3 approach to public projects has been utterly discredited. Auditor general Jacques Lapointe last year lambasted the province's P3 school deal, which Lapointe said cost taxpayers an unneeded $52 million.

Additionally, when a group comprised of mostly Kelly's fellow Bedford PCers got together to build a hockey rink, they opted not for the P3 model, but instead to form the non-profit Rocky Lake Development Association, which collected $1.5 million in never-repaid provincial "loans," and another $2 million in federal stimulus money, only 13 years later to produce the inflatable dome on the Rocky Lake Common.

Secondly, I think municipal government absolutely should be investing in recreation facilities. Recreation facilities that people actually use for recreation—as opposed to watching other people recreate—make us a healthier, better community. I remain a firm supporter of The Oval, even at its $5 million (and counting) cost, as it will bring thousands of people out daily to skate and brighten our dank winter culture.

The $2.7 million spent to acquire the abandoned Chester Spur rail line to convert it to an all-purpose trail, and the millions more spent on active transportation across the city, are wise expenditures. And while one of the biggest challenges facing council is figuring out how to fund expansion of neighbourhood recreation facilities—council last month agreed to freeze all expansions except the Dartmouth Sportsplex reno project for a year, while a financing formula is worked out—doing so is imperative, a fundamental duty of city government.

So while Kelly's flip-flopping on public financing is amusing—does anyone expect consistency from our bumbling, disgraced mayor?—it's not the heart of the problem with the proposed stadium.

I would rather see the $20 million spent on primary recreation needs like sports fields and rec centres, which are in short supply, but I'll acknowledge there's great public interest in a stadium. It would make some sense to map out a plan for a stadium—figure out what community needs it could meet, and how best to meet those needs, then maybe we could shoehorn the odd concert or large-scale tournament into the thing, as an added benefit.

The opposite is happening, however. Stadium supporters are hell-bent on building a facility for a two-weekend FIFA women's soccer tournament in 2015—Halifax would get the lower tier pairings while the main action and championship games go to Toronto and Montreal. After that, supporters think we can figure out what community use we can make of the stadium. This is backwards.

Moreover, the city has to commit to the FIFA bid by the end of the year. Premier Darrell Dexter has already stated that the province won't contribute funding, and the federal government typically takes months to vet proposed projects, so approving this stadium now is a financial disaster in the making.

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