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Jeffrey Simpson

An NHL arena for Quebec City? Absurd Add to ...

If the citizens of Quebec City and the province of Quebec wish to spend almost $400-million on a really, really bad idea – a hockey arena for Quebec City – go ahead. It’s their money, their governments, their dream, their choice. But, please, don’t ask Canadians elsewhere to join this foolishness.

To its evident discomfort, but thus far to its considerable credit, the Harper government has refused to succumb to the fervour in Quebec City to spend money badly. Should the Harper government yield and somehow inject big bucks into the project, its credibility would be shot outside Quebec and even in many quarters of the province where public money for this new arena is considered a classic case of misplaced priorities.

Federal money for Quebec City would stir up a firestorm in other cities where no or very little federal money went into National Hockey League arenas – Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. It would also create a tremendous backlash among the public. Simultaneously, it would put the Harperites in a vulnerable position for resisting handouts for planned or renovated arenas and/or stadiums in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Hamilton, to say nothing of other cities wanting to join the queue for cash.

The principle behind the Quebec City arena is all wrong: that the taxpayer should pay for a building eventually to be used to make profits for the private sector. It’s nothing short of outrageous that not a penny of private money will be spent on this arena. Instead, the public will pay and private interests will gain.

It’s the classic delusion of boosterish mayors that publicly financed buildings will pay for themselves. Without an anchor tenant, the buildings remain a constant drain on the taxpayer – who’s invariably asked to bail out tenants or bribe them with further concessions to stay.

Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume says no new taxes will be required to finance his city’s $187-million contribution. His city will borrow $125-billion plus add a $4 ticket surcharge. But that financing, of course, increases the city’s debt and depends, as does the whole project, on filling the place many nights of the year – which, in turn, depends on attracting an NHL team.

Quebec City is small and attractive, with a meagre private sector. If the NHL were serious about expanding, Quebec City would be well down the list. And if the league were transferring a team, again, it would probably look elsewhere. What the mayor probably intends is to have his arena built as quickly as possible, so Quebec City, not Winnipeg, would be the preferred Canadian site for a transferred team. It’s a huge gamble, to say the least.

Then there’s the matter of the Winter Olympics. The mayor and Quebec Premier Jean Charest justify the building in part because Quebec City will bid for the 2022 Winter Games. Anyone who knows anything about the Olympics must understand that no Canadian city will get the Winter Games 12 years after the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Remember that the bigwigs of the international ski world have already scoffed at the mountains near Quebec City as being too small for Olympic competition.

So this arena is based on three false assumptions: that the public should pay for a facility from which the private sector will profit; that the NHL is panting to come to Quebec City and that massive public money should lure it there; and that a new building would help bring the Winter Olympics to Quebec City.

Also remember that Quebec is the most indebted province per capita, and the most heavily taxed. It receives considerable transfers from the rest of Canada that are supposed to be used for public services such as health care and education, not for circuses.

The province has a Liberal government that raised taxes for health care, proposes to raise student fees and electricity prices, and slow the increase in government spending to deal with the deficit and swollen debt. To its credit, the Charest government had been trying to inform Quebeckers of the challenges of having lived way beyond their collective means. Goodbye to that argument with this arena.

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