Canadian fans would love to see a National Hockey League team return to Quebec City, but definitely not the way the return is being proposed.
What's being proposed would see taxpayers in Quebec City, the rest of Quebec and across Canada provide almost half a billion dollars for an arena.
Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver all built new arenas with private money. Ottawa's arena received only a dribble of federal money; indeed, the Ontario government made the owner of the day pay for a highway interchange. Winnipeg has the MTS Centre, paid for privately, which awaits the arrival of the NHL's money-losing Phoenix Coyotes.
Federal money for Quebec City would be a precedent for government subsidization of professional sports arenas. Think of Edmonton and Calgary, where owners want new buildings. Think of what might happen if Winnipeg's owners wanted to expand the MTS Centre from 15,000 seats to, say, 18,000. Think of the future owner of an NHL team in Southern Ontario - a vastly larger market than Quebec City. Think of Ottawa, Regina and Hamilton, which are planning, or wanting, new stadiums for the Canadian Football League.
How could any federal government say no to these requests, or others, having said yes to Quebec City? It couldn't, politically.
Where's the federal money to come from? The stimulus money has run out. Therefore, the money would have to come from existing pots, likely the federal regional development fund for Quebec. If Ottawa took $180-million from that fund, it would by definition have $180-million less to spend on other projects in Quebec. Quebeckers should therefore ask themselves: Do they really want to rob the Gaspé, the North Shore, the Upper Gatineau and other economically struggling regions for a professional hockey arena in Quebec City? Maybe they do, but a dollar spent in one place cannot be spent in another.
Who gains if the taxpayers pay the shot? None other than that great free marketeer Pierre Karl Péladeau, who tried to buy the Montreal Canadiens and would love to own a team in Quebec City that he could use to drive business for his television and cable networks. He'd be smiling all the way to the bank if taxpayers handed him a new building.
The United States is littered with stadiums and arenas paid for by taxpayers. Almost none of them pay for themselves, as study after study has shown. The New York Times reported this week on cities still paying the debts on stadiums that have been destroyed!
If a Quebec City arena were economically viable, private interests would build it. Therefore, the study trotted out to support this project, suggesting that it could be viable even without an NHL team, is preposterous. If such an arena were viable, companies would be falling over themselves to invest.
What about a future Winter Olympics in Quebec City? Boosters are already talking up a bid for the 2022 Games. It is beyond fanciful to imagine that the International Olympic Committee, having given the 2010 Games to Vancouver, would favour another Canadian city 12 years later.
Give Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume full marks for political smarts. He knows that both Jean Charest's provincial Liberals and Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives are desperately unpopular in Quebec. He knows that desperate politicians can be induced to do desperately stupid things - in Mr. Harper's case, swallowing all his words about forthcoming fiscal restraint and the need for private-public partnerships.
The problem for federal political parties in Quebec is that the money-for-popularity game seldom works. What happens is that the interest groups, media, provincial political parties rally around something seen to be in Quebec's "interests," then demand payment from Ottawa. If Ottawa doesn't pay up, it's interpreted as a slap in the face for Quebec. If Ottawa does pay, Quebeckers shrug, ask why it took so long and offer no political reward.
If Quebec City wants a team, private money should build the arena, as has happened across the country. If the city wants to put its citizens' money into private pockets, go ahead, but don't ask other Quebeckers for their money.
And if Quebeckers do want to spend their money, that would be unwise, but go ahead. Just don't ask taxpayers elsewhere to pay up, because they haven't elsewhere, and for very good reasons.