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'Friends of the Common' argue Wanderers Grounds stadium setup bars amateur sport participation

It's all quiet at the Wanderers Grounds on Friday morning, but behind the scenes, there's a battle brewing over the turf here.

The Friends of the Halifax Common say they were forced to hire a high-profile Halifax lawyer to send a "cease and desist" letter to Mayor Mike Savage, saying the lease of the Wanderers Grounds to the professional soccer team, the HFX Wanderers, is a bad deal financially, but it also robs the public and amateur athletes of using the facility.

"There's a very low rent that's being charged for the professional soccer team to use this space," said Howard Epstein, a member of the non-profit community group Friends of the Halifax Common.

According to a 2018 municipal staff report, the Wanderers pay $1,200 to rent the stadium for each home game and the stadium seating was supposed to be dismantled at the end of the season. 

"In turn they can charge the public quite a large fee to get in and so they (HFX Wanderers) are making a lot of money on the financial backs of the public," said Epstein.

Friends of the Common is a community organization that was established in 2006 to advocate for and preserve the greenspace on the Halifax Common and for years has fought against private and public development on the common, which extends through the heart of the Halifax peninsula.

In the letter, they say the city's lease agreement with the Wanderers and its owner Derek Martin and his sporting and events Sports Entertainment Atlantic is a violation of the HRM charter and the 1994 Halifax Common Plan.

Epstein feels the Wanderers Grounds have been turned into a private stadium which is counter to the lease agreement that allowed the team to install temporary stadium seating that is supposed to be removed at the end of the season.

"It's not really inviting to the public to come in, to wander around to look, to enjoy it and to use it," said Epstein, pointing to the black fencing and locked gates at the entrance to the field at the corner of Summer and Sackville Street.

"It's clear that this is set up as something where you have to pay to have access and is set up as a privatized arrangement, which is not what the Common was set up for," he said.

A representative with the mayor's office confirmed they received the letter and have shared it with the city's legal team and declined an interview.

The Wanderers and owner Derek Martin didn't return a request for comment.

NSCC business professor Ed McHugh says it’s unfortunate it has come to this point.

"They are both good causes and both do good things and when it slips down that litigious route, it's unfortunate," said McHugh.

The Wanders have been a soccer success story in the Canadian Premier League, said McHugh, and have a dedicated fan base that continually sells out home games. However, this challenge from the Friends of the Common may spur the soccer team to build a new permanent stadium.

"There's a need for a permanent facility but you can't put it out in the middle of nowhere," said McHugh. "It's got to be somewhere inside the infrastructure where people going to a game can go to a pub, go out for a meal before or afterwards, so you got to think the peninsula or Halifax is where the stadium has to be."

The Friends of the Common don't care where it is, they just don't want it here, said Epstein, and they are prepared to take their challenge to court if need be.

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