With one eye on an NHL franchise and another on the 2022 Winter Olympics, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume unveiled an ambitious plan Friday to build a $400-million arena, with federal and provincial politicians voicing support for the project.
The two senior levels of government are being asked to inject $175-million apiece, with the city pumping in the remaining $50-million for a building that would seat 18,000 spectators.
If all goes well, the city could have its new arena as early as 2012. But first Mr. Labeaume needs to be re-elected on Nov. 1. Barring a sudden surge in popularity by the handful of marginal candidates running against him, he is expected to win by a landslide.
So after meeting NHL president Gary Bettman last week in New York, Mr. Labeaume has cast his re-election bid as a referendum on the construction of the arena as the first step towards attracting a new team to replace the popular Nordiques, who moved to Colorado 15 years ago. The stronger the turnout on his behalf in the balloting, the greater the pressure he expects to exert on Quebec and Ottawa to dish out the cash.
"This project is now part of our proposals for the November 1st election," he told a news conference Friday. "We need the support of the population of Quebec City to go further with this project."
Quebec City doesn't want any handouts, he insisted. Mr. Labeaume said his business plan will make a number of suggestions that may include funding from private sponsors, a special lottery or money from the tobacco tax that will help government recover its share of the funding.
The mayor added that the project doesn't hinge on getting an NHL franchise or winning an Olympic bid. The opposite is true, he said. "Without the arena, you can be sure that no professional [hockey]team will want to come here," he argued, noting that the Colisée where the Nordiques played is old and inadequate.
The president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Marcel Aubut, a one-time part owner of the Nordiques who set up last week's meeting with Mr. Bettman, said that with a new arena the city would be well-positioned to get an NHL franchise.
"I've known Mr. Bettman for 18 years and it is rare that he commits himself in the way that he has during our meeting," Mr. Aubut said. "But without the new arena, forget it."
The anticipated announcement has been the talk of the town for days in local newscasts, open-line radio shows and newspaper articles. The dream of acquiring an NHL franchise triggered massive popular support, and no federal or provincial minister dared rain on Mr. Labeaume's parade.
The federal Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Josée Verner, who represents a Quebec City riding, suggested the money could come out of the federal infrastructure program as part of Quebec's share of the funding. "It's up to the province to determine its priorities," she said Friday.
Provincial Labour Minister Sam Hamad, who is responsible for the region, said his government will take a serious look at the proposal. "We are open to the project … we want an NHL franchise and we want a new arena for Quebec City," Mr. Hamad said.