QUEBEC – There’s no federal cash, no private sector commitment, and absolutely no guarantee that NHL hockey will ever return.
But Quebec City has announced it will move ahead with construction of a new NHL-style hockey arena—with or without any involvement from Ottawa or private industry.
The announcement came after months of spirited national debate, prompted by the prospect of federal tax dollars being used to build an arena for a non-existent NHL team.
The project’s backers announced Thursday that, without any guarantee of outside cash pouring in, they were going with Plan B.
Mayor Regis Labeaume and Premier Jean Charest told a crowded news conference the project will proceed with a 50-50 funding arrangement between the province and city.
The mayor said he expects construction to begin in two years and end by 2015. But he wasn’t wasting any time discussing the matter with NHL bosses.
“I will announce in the coming hours to the commissioner of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman, that Quebec City will go ahead with the construction of a new multi-purpose amphitheatre in partnership with the Quebec government,” Labeaume said.
Charest says the province will increase its funding commitment and is now ready to pay half the arena cost—as long as the total price tag doesn’t exceed $400 million.
Charest says the door’s always open if Ottawa wants to contribute later: ”If that’s the case, it will be welcome news and we’ll be delighted to have them as a partner.”
The federal government hasn’t officially slammed that door. The Tories’ point person on the file said Thursday she’s still awaiting a detailed financing plan from Quebec City.
Josee Verner said the only details she has so far are press clippings and news releases. She said she wants to know more about the kind of private-sector revenue the building might generate.
With those details in hand, the cabinet minister said, Ottawa could then consider possible funding.
“It’ll depend on what they send us,” Verner told reporters in Ottawa.
“For now, we have nothing in our hands.”
But there were some notable absences at Thursday’s news conference: nobody was there from Ottawa, or from Quebecor Inc., the media empire that has been talking about bringing NHL hockey back to Quebec City.
The city’s initial financing plan fell apart when Ottawa, fearing a national backlash, resisted the request for roughly $200 million in public funds.
The political temptation for Ottawa to get involved was palpable, initially.
Quebec City is poised to be a key battleground in the next election and any hopes of a Conservative majority may rest, in part, with the results in the provincial capital. It now appears unlikely the Tories could reap any political benefit from a new arena, if an election is called this spring.
Another key player was also absent from the news conference: the NHL. Bettman has declared that, even with a new arena, there’s no guarantee Quebec City will get its Nordiques back.
A reporter asked how anyone could make an ethical case for using public money this way—especially in such a heavily indebted province, where so many people can’t get access to a family doctor or even to a bed in overcrowded hospitals.
The famously feisty mayor unloaded on him.
“It’s extremely simplistic to put it that way,” Labeaume said.
“Go ask the people of Quebec City what they think. . .
“The people of Quebec City want an arena. You can talk all you want about ethics, about making parallels with hospitals that are in my opinion inappropriate.
“I’m sorry. We live in a society and there’s lots of things in a society. We live in a community. By the way, I promised an amphitheatre in the last election and I was elected with 80 per cent of the vote. Are you trying to say that the people who voted for me have no ethics?
“I’m sorry—that doesn’t work. And I sincerely believe those kinds of comparisons are, frankly, useless.”
Labeaume repeated several timesthe city’s projected share of the project—$187 million—would amount, over the life of its financing, to less than one per cent of the municipal budget.
He promised to get it built without raising municipal tax rates. Labeaume said he would slash $62 million from the city’s current administrative costs and borrow $125 million over 20 years.
He also dismissed fears the building could wind up suffering a bleak fate if, like older arenas in Hamilton and Kansas City, it fails to land an NHL tenant.
Labeaume said this building would “not become a white elephant” because, as a multi-purpose facility, it would attract more non-hockey events to Quebec City.
The mayor was equally combative when a reporter asked why he was moving ahead so quickly, even before formal cost assessments had been completed.
The current $400-million estimate is not final. A provincial agency is only promising to deliver a more accurate assessment next year.
“I’m not answering those kinds of questions anymore,” Labeaume shot back when asked about the cost assessment. ”They no longer interest me.
“In Quebec City, we have a reputation for staying within our construction costs.”