For six springs running, Montrealers hoping for a permanent return of Major League Baseball to Canada’s second biggest city have had to settle for a couple of exhibition matches.
This year has been no different, with the Toronto Blue Jays this week taking on the Milwaukee Brewers at the cavernous Olympic Stadium for two games that count for nothing except in the minds of diehard fans who still dream of the rebirth of the departed Montreal Expos.
What is different this year, on the 50th anniversary of the Expos’ first season in 1969, is how seriously those involved seem to be talking about the prospect of MLB’s permanent return. Key elements of the plan hatched by Montreal businessman Stephen Bronfman to revive the Expos have been rapidly coming together, with the provincial government jumping on board.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken favourably about the league’s return to Montreal, which remains the biggest North American city currently in the hunt for an expansion team or awaiting a move by an existing franchise. Most critically, since the Expos left for Washington in 2004, league-wide revenue sharing has been enhanced in favour of smaller-market teams.
With players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado recently signing long-term contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars each, a future Montreal franchise might still be at a disadvantage to larger-market teams in retaining talent. But that does not seem to have deterred Mr. Bronfman as he intensifies his lobbying campaign to revive the Expos.
The plan revolves around persuading Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation that manages properties owned by the federal government, to sell an 8.5-hectare plot of land along the Lachine Canal known as the Wellington Basin. The land on the fringe of downtown, which is leased to a grain shipping company until 2024, is widely seen as the ideal site for a baseball stadium. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s light-rail transit project already has plans to build a station adjacent to the proposed stadium site.
The prospect of a bidding war for the site, estimated to be worth at least $50-million, emerged when local developer Devimco unveiled a competing proposal for a $2.5-billion residential-commercial-office project on the same parcel in a fast-developing part of Montreal known as Griffintown. The former industrial area has seen a condo-building boom in recent years.
This week, however, Mr. Bronfman and Devimco president Serge Goulet disclosed that their respective companies are now negotiating to jointly develop the site. “It’s a big plot of land. The stadium would fit well on it. There is an opportunity here for a development that would be good for the residents of southwest Montreal and for all Montrealers,” Mr. Bronfman told La Presse Canadienne. “The next step is to acquire the land and then wait for news from the MLB.”
As chairman of fundraising for the Liberal Party of Canada, Mr. Bronfman has deep connections in Ottawa. But he has also enlisted the help of the Quebec government to persuade Ottawa to sell the land to the investment group that his private equity firm, Claridge Inc., has put together to buy an MLB team. The group includes Cirque du Soleil chairman Mitch Garber, Garda World chief executive Stéphan Crétier and Stingray Group CEO Eric Boyko.
Mr. Bronfman and Claridge CEO Pierre Boivin, a former CEO of the Montreal Canadiens, have registered as lobbyists in Quebec as they seek support for their Expos plan from the new Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) provincial government. The National Assembly last month passed a motion brought by the far-left Québec Solidaire demanding that the provincial government refuse any request to subsidize the construction of a baseball stadium. Provincial taxpayers footed the entire $375-million bill for the construction of Quebec City’s Centre Vidéotron in 2015 in the hopes of luring an NHL franchise to the provincial capital. But Quebecor’s failure to snag a new team for the venue has left the arena with a sizable operating deficit. Critics of Mr. Bronfman’s plan worry the same could happen with a baseball stadium.
CAQ Economy and Innovation Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon has insisted that the Québec Solidaire motion would not prevent the provincial government from becoming a partner or investor in a future stadium and MLB team. “In all of our interventions, we look at the return on investment, but we also now look at the tax revenues and job creation,” he told La Presse last month.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, whose left-leaning Projet Montréal party had been cool to the idea while in opposition, has also spoken favourably about Mr. Bronfman’s project. The City of Montreal has a right of first refusal if the federal government decides to sell the land.
Expos fans will still likely have to settle for a few more years of Blue Jays exhibition games in lieu of a real home opener. But the prospects for a return of pro ball to Montreal are looking up. Only time will tell whether the end result is of the pop-fly or home-run variety.