MONTREAL - The federal government poured fuel on speculation Wednesday that it might be ready to spend an estimated $180 million to help build a hockey arena in the hope of bringing an NHL team back to Quebec City.
First, the government said it was "very interested" in the project to build a new arena. Later Wednesday, Quebec City Conservative MPs illustrated their own eagerness by wearing the old blue-and-white jersey of the defunct Nordiques to a public event.
Detractors warned Ottawa to steer clear of committing public money to a project that benefits private enterprise—particularly at a time of enormous federal deficits.
The proposed $400-million facility is considered a prerequisite for the potential return of NHL hockey following the departure of the Nordiques in 1995.
And the make-or-break player appears to be the Harper government, now that the provincial and municipal governments have already committed to funding most of the arena.
In a telling show of support, Quebec City-area Tories made a public appearance Wednesday in vintage Nordiques jerseys while promising to push the arena issue in Ottawa.
A federal source said the government will need some time to review a feasibility study—one Quebec has had in its possession since June—that supports the project to replace the 61-year-old Colisee.
Another official confirmed that the feds are examining the request that they fork over 45 per cent of the funding for the project.
"As far as a new arena is concerned, our government is very interested to know if this can be done," John Babcock, a spokesman for Transport Minister Chuck Strahl, said in an email Wednesday.
"As the prime minister has clearly said, we would be very happy if (the) Nordiques could make a comeback to Quebec City."
The Tories have 11 seats in Quebec and holding on to them is key to achieving their coveted majority in a future election. Most of those seats are in Quebec City.
While it might prove popular locally, any federal funding would carry obvious political risks.
The demand for federal cash for sports teams could quickly spread across the country and create regional grievances in areas that don't receive it.
The Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg residents posting on the Internet, and even one major-junior league hinted Wednesday that they might also expect funding if Quebec City gets some.
Others derided the use of public money to fund the amphitheatre as a colossal waste that will inevitably prompt other cities to make similar demands.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says economics—not political calculations—should decide whether the government spends public money.
"The federal government getting involved in this will depend on how many seats are in play," said Derek Fildebrandt, national research director of the anti-tax group.
And while municipalities should be accommodating to a sports team, he said, "in no way should any level of government be stepping in financially or through tax incentives to help private business."
A report by Equipe-Quebec—a group working to attract the Winter Olympics in 2022—recommends building an arena. But it also concedes the building would run a deficit unless it attracted an NHL tenant.
The federal government will have a close look at the study.
"We understand the Equipe-Quebec report supports the construction of a new multipurpose venue which could host world-class sports events, cultural and community events, or potentially be home to an NHL team. We are reviewing the report," Babcock wrote.
According to a study conducted by Ernst&Young, a new arena would bring in $8.4 million a year with an NHL tenant and $7.8 million without a professional club.
The cost of financing and maintaining an arena could be far higher. According to Claude Rousseau, president of Equipe-Quebec, the expenses would be between $36 million and $41 million annually, rendering the building unprofitable for a private business.
But over the longer term, Rousseau says, the project would generate $500-$600 million over 40 years and governments would reap the benefits.
Less than a day after Premier Jean Charest opened the provincial coffers to fund the project, funding requests started flowing in.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League president Gilles Courteau told The Canadian Press on Wednesday that he hoped Charest's generosity wouldn't end there.
"What I'm hoping for now is that there is still money left to construct junior arenas or renovate those that need it in the QMJHL," Courteau said.
Courteau said the need to build major-junior hockey league installations with modern conveniences and technologies ranks as a major preoccupation for the league.
One economist says the Quebec City arena will be a bust unless an NHL franchise is essentially guaranteed; Quebecor's Pierre Karl Peladeau is in the early stages of an effort to bring back the Nordiques.
And economist Michel Poitevin said there will be a lineup for funding if the federal government decides the Quebec City arena project is worth supporting.
"If the federal government says yes, than there are a lot of people who will be knocking on their door," said Poitevin, an economist at Universite de Montreal.
"You have to realize if they put money into that arena, who will gain from this? Peladeau, if he brings the team, hockey players, all these millionaires."
Other Canadian cities are already looking to upgrade facilities.
Edmonton wants to build a new downtown arena for the Oilers and there have been rumblings out of Calgary about the potential for a new arena for the Flames, whose current lease runs through 2014.
In Edmonton, a spokesman for the local arena plan said Quebec City's project was on its radar.
"We're watching developments in Quebec with interest," said Steve Hogle of Katz Group, which is developing the Edmonton arena project.
In Regina, the Roughriders are seeking a new $400 million stadium to house the CFL franchise.
Hamilton and Winnipeg have also expressed interest in bringing NHL teams to their respective cities, which would require upgraded or brand new facilities.
"This would just set yet another bad precedent," Fildebrandt said.
"The big difference in determining what cities will be getting (federal funding for) a professional sports arena I think will be political calculations: How many votes are up for grabs as a result? How grateful will people feel for the government spending their own money?"
- with files from Marc Tougas in Montreal