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There will be no big-league team in the provincial capital this year, but on Sept. 8, Team North America faces off against Team Europe in a World Cup of Hockey exhibition game. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
There will be no big-league team in the provincial capital this year, but on Sept. 8, Team North America faces off against Team Europe in a World Cup of Hockey exhibition game. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Quebec’s Centre Vidéotron faces money-losing first year of operation Add to ...

First off, the thing is magnificent – shimmering and futuristic, glossy as any pearl.

Quebec City’s Centre Vidéotron may not make as aggressive an architectural statement as say the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, but it is without question an appealing, state-of-the art facility both inside and out.

Now, about filling the place.

As the barn’s first anniversary heaves into view it’s fair to say – borrowing the parlance of the NHL dressing room – there have been ups and downs.

It’s early to start bandying terms such as “white elephant” (although the building is indeed white and from the right angle can seem vaguely elephantine), but without an NHL team to occupy 41 nights the arena cost taxpayers money last year – $730,000 to be exact.

It also emerged recently the executive hired amid much fanfare to oversee operations quit for personal reasons. And complaints have arisen regarding access to the arena. After hundreds of people were recently left stranded outside after a show, the mayor tartly lectured the city’s taxi industry on its shortcomings.

But the big financial news, that the city would have to reimburse a six-figure amount to Quebecor, the media giant that owns the arena lease and naming rights, landed the same week the NHL confirmed what every hockey fan in Quebec City both expected and dreaded: there will be no big-league team in the provincial capital this year.

Instead, there is a consolation prize.

On Sept. 8, a year to the day after the rink’s official inauguration, Team North America faces off against Team Europe in a World Cup of Hockey exhibition game.

Plenty of seats are apparently still available. A columnist for the Quebecor-owned Journal de Québec exhorted hockey fans to fill the building as a signal to the NHL (the paper subsequently reported sales have picked up but a request for an update from Gestev, the Quebecor subsidiary that manages the arena, was not returned).

“It bothers me when I hear that we have to step up and show the league, we have to prove how much we want a team. We’ve done exactly everything that’s been asked of us, there’s no better hockey market than Quebec, and yet we’re expected to constantly roll out the red carpet, smile and be happy,” said Pascal Grenon, who co-ordinates the popular fan site Zonenordiques.com. “Quebec is becoming the exhibition-game capital of the world. That’s great, but what we want is the Nordiques, not regular-season prices for preseason games.”

An unscientific sampling of opinion on Grenon’s site suggests it’s not isolated grumbling.

“My sense is people are starting to get disillusioned,” Grenon said. “The longer this drags on, the more cynical people become. Maybe at some point we’ll just get tired of waiting.”

That said, the dream of seeing Nordiques jerseys swirl around an NHL rink once again lives on. Grenon, ever the optimist, reckons relocation could happen as soon as 2017.

No, the picture isn’t totally gloomy.

Pop songstress Céline Dion just wrapped up a five-night run of sold-out shows, attracting an estimated 75,000 concertgoers.

Opponents of the arena project fretted it would hoover up a disproportionate amount of increasingly scarce leisure dollars.

Anecdotal reports from the operators of existing venues indicate it hasn’t come to pass.

Numbers from the the provincial government statistics agency’s culture section, known as ISQ, while not definitive, appear to bear that out.

“We’re not in a position to break it down by specific venue, but overall, ticket sales were up considerably in the last quarter of 2015, it was the second-highest volume we’ve measured since we started collecting data in 2006,” said the ISQ’s Claude Fortier.

That said, the Centre Vidéotron’s autumn and winter calendar is looking a little sparse.

As it stands, the building will be occupied for about a dozen nights between Sept. 1 and March 31 – excluding Quebec Remparts junior-hockey games (the 4-per-cent municipal ticket levy doesn’t apply to the club).

According to both city and private-sector projections, event ticket sales should hit roughly 225,000 for 2016, which would put the building among the 75 busiest concert venues in the world, in the same ballpark as Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre (the calculation does not include hockey ticket revenues).

That’s better than Winnipeg’s MTS Centre and Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome but falls far short of Kansas City’s Sprint Centre, another multipurpose building with no anchor sports tenant, and which sold 430,000 tickets in 2015 according to Pollstar, an industry publication.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, an early and strident booster of the arena project, protests that the concerns arising from the rink’s first year in business are vastly overblown.

“There are no surprises here ... nobody expects a new business this size to make money in its first year,” he told news reporters earlier this summer (Labeaume was not available for comment).

He has repeatedly pointed out the lower-than-expected construction costs have reduced the amount of interest payments, and the city received a $33-million cheque last year for the naming rights to the arena.

Thus, any shortfalls are more than offset by the cash already on hand, Labeaume says.

His political opponents take a less charitable view.

City council’s official opposition party (municipal politics in Quebec function on a party system) point out the city borrowed $175-million to build it – a matching amount came from provincial coffers – and has since shelled out another $40-million or so for related development projects nearby.

That despite the heavy preponderance of economic research that suggests arenas are a poor method of urban renewal or economic development.

The opposition has also had a field day with the ironclad confidentiality agreement the city signed with Quebecor. Council is not permitted to see the detailed sales accounts for the arena.

Under the terms of the arena lease, the city gets $3.15-million in rent annually, bumped up to $5-million and another $30.5-million for naming rights if and when an NHL tenant arrives.

It is also on the hook for 50 per cent of any operating deficit, up to a maximum of $2.5-million.

Labeaume has insisted loudly and forcefully the deal is favourable to taxpayers. The initial returns mean his adversaries can suggest otherwise.

The next 12 months may not do much to settle the argument.

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