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Quebec arena funding means money for all arenas: Harper

In Canada on September 9, 2010 at 22:32

Quebec arena funding means money for all arenas: Harper

Artist drawing of propossed new hockey arena in Quebec City.

JÕai ma plac

Artist drawing of propossed new hockey arena in Quebec City.

Mark Kennedy and Andrew Mayeda, Postmedia News · Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that if his government agrees to spend millions of dollars to help build an NHL hockey arena in Quebec City, it will be duty-bound to provide similar support for sporting facilities in the rest of the country.

Harper is under pressure to provide the funds to help seal the return of a National Hockey League team to Quebec City, where the Conservatives have had their strongest showings in Quebec in recent elections. At the same time, he risks a backlash in the rest of Canada — and could spark internal dissent among western MPs in his caucus over the issue — if he moves too rapidly and appears to give preferential treatment to Quebec at a time when the government is battling a massive deficit.

The lobbying efforts intensified earlier this week, when Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s government announced it will pay 45% of the construction costs of a projected $400-million arena. Charest said a feasibility study for an 18,000-seat arena showed it would be profitable and he turned up the pressure on the Harper government to come up with an additional 45% — an estimated $175-million — needed to build the arena.

A new arena is key for an NHL return to Quebec City as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the project would need to be completed before the league brings a team back to the city, which was home to the Quebec Nordiques until 1995.

However, when asked at an event in Saskatchewan on Thursday, Harper suggested it might not be just as simple as writing a cheque for Quebec City.

“First of all, as everyone knows, I’m a big sports fan, a big fan of teams in the National Hockey League and the Canadian Football League, and we understand that these are very important to our large communities across the country, and obviously we want to see these operations which are important to people thrive,” Harper said.

“That said, these are professional business operations. The government does not, has never, directly financed professional sports clubs. So that’s important to remember.”

Although the prime minister shut the door on directly funding pro teams, his government could still finance the Quebec arena using infrastructure funds. Harper noted that there are “demands,” not only in Quebec City, but also other Canadian cities to finance major sports facilities.

“You know, in terms of financing any of these things going forward, we’re going to have to respect the precedents we had in the past and be sure any treatment we’re prepared to give to one major city we’re prepared to give to all,” he said. “Obviously we’ll be looking at our options in that context.”

Beyond funding the Quebec City arena, Harper is facing questions about whether he will provide money to build a new stadium for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

“Whatever we do in these two cities, we have to be prepared to do everywhere,” Harper said. “Ultimately, professional sports teams themselves have to be sound business propositions.”

Earlier this week, federal funding for the new arena appeared to be a fait accompli, after Conservative MPs from the province posed for photos wearing the old Nordiques hockey jerseys.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, a senior MP in the party’s Quebec caucus, strongly hinted that the door was open to federal cash.

“As MPs, we cannot ignore the wishes of the population that wants the Nordiques to return,” he said. “In addition, our political formation, the Conservative Party, has received important support in Quebec City.”

Early Thursday evening, Harper’s director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, appeared on CBC TV’s Power & Politics to answer questions about the issue.

Soudas did not rule out the possibility the government will fund the Quebec City arena. He said that such a move would not be tantamount to supporting a hockey team because the rink would be owned by a municipal authority and be used for other purposes, such as concerts.

“The federal government has not funded professional teams and this is not what we’re talking about here,” Soudas told the CBC. He added that governments need to look at the “big picture” about whether such investments would boost economic activity, and also how it would “motivate” young people to get involved in sports.

“Sports are not about politics,” he said. “I think that hockey fans across the country — whether it’s in cities that currently have hockey or football teams, or cities that don’t, everybody would love to have a hockey team in their part of their town. And you know what? If teams like the Quebec Nordiques or the Winnipeg Jets or any other city can come back to Canada, well then that’s great. Because hockey is actually Canada’s sport.”

If the Conservatives agree to fund the new Quebec City arena, it would break with the federal government’s recent tradition of offering little or no funding for NHL arenas.

Of the four arenas most recently built in Canada, only Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place received any federal financial support. The arena, originally known as the Palladium, received $6 million in federal funds — a small fraction of its $226-million cost.

The entire $265-million cost of the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was privately funded, according to team officials. The same goes for the $270-million tab for Montreal’s Bell Centre, and the $242 million it cost to build Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

Critics say a sweetheart deal in Quebec City would create a costly precedent that could pit other parts of the country against Quebec.

“If the federal government ponies up $180 million for a stadium in Quebec City, hockey fans in every single city across the country are going to wonder where their money is,” said Derek Fildebrandt, national research director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

He said other Canadian cities would likely ask for federal money to fund new football stadiums, noting that Regina plans to build a new stadium for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.

Both Edmonton and Calgary have been developing plans to build new facilities to replace their aging rinks.

This summer, Daryl Katz, the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers, pitched a deal to the city under which he would pay $200 million of the roughly $400-million cost of renovating Rexall Place. The municipal, provincial and federal governments would be expected to pay the remainder.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach shot down the idea of funding arena projects Thursday.

“As I said before, there won’t be any public money going to the arenas,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up with badly needed infrastructure in health and schools.”

Despite the country’s love for the sport, promising federal largesse for professional hockey can land politicians in the penalty box, as former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley found out in 2000. At the time, Manley proposed subsidizing Canadian NHL teams to keep them in the country, only to shelve the plan after a fierce public backlash to the notion of funding millionaire hockey players with taxpayers’ money.

A report on the proposed Quebec City facility commissioned by the Quebec government includes Vancouver’s Rogers Arena as an example of how the new arena could be financed — but not the arenas in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The report, produced by Ernst & Young, also mentions Winnipeg’s MTS Centre — home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. The $91-million arena received about $13 million in federal funding.

The report also cites the Sprint Center in Kansas City, which received $216 million in public funding out of its $276-million total cost. It is more common for arenas in the United States to receive public financing.

Air Canada Centre, Toronto

Date opened: 1999

Total cost: $265 million

Private funding: $265 million

Public funding: $0

Scotiabank Place, Ottawa

Date opened: 1996 (opened as the Palladium)

Total cost: $226 million

Private funding: $220 million

Public funding: $6 million (federal)

Bell Centre, Montreal

Date opened: 1996 (as Molson Centre)

Total cost: $270 million

Private funding: $270 million

Public funding: $0

Rogers Arena, Vancouver

Date opened: 1995 (as GM Place)

Total cost: $242 million

Private funding: $242 million

Public funding: $0

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