It was clear talks about bringing baseball back to Montreal went well when Mayor Valerie Plante linked arms with Stephen Bronfman as they descended the stairs at city hall.
And after the 45-minute session with Bronfman and his fellow businessman Mitch Garber on Friday, Plante gave the project the thumbs-up.
“The subject we talked about was baseball,” said Plante, who asked for the talks just to meet the potential investors and get an update on where it stands. “It didn’t take long to realize that all three of us like projects that will revive Montreal.
“We’re proud Montrealers. We like projects that are good for economic development and social development and, if getting a baseball team back is good for Montreal, we’re in.”
Plante didn’t even rule out putting public money into the project, as long as it was approved by citizens in a referendum.
Bronfman and Garber have taken the lead in a bid to bring back major league baseball, either through expansion or relocating an existing club. The city has been without top-level ball since the Expos moved to Washington D.C., and were renamed the Nationals after the 2004 season.
There was concern when former mayor Denis Coderre, an avid baseball backer, was upset in a November election by Plante and her Projet Montreal party. Plante appeared cool to the idea of city involvement in pro sports.
However, when Bronfman said last week he didn’t expect any municipal money but needed the city’s support in other areas, the mayor not only looked interested, but enthusiastic. She even posted a picture of herself in an Expos cap on social media the day before the meeting.
“To me the element that was most difficult was the financial aspect but again, I never said I don’t want to invest Montrealers’ money in it, but rather that if we want to do it, we have to ask them,” said Plante. “That still holds.
“But the city can support the return of baseball in many ways.”
The project would likely be expensive, not only to acquire a team but to build a new stadium. Part of the reason the Expos failed was that fans rejected the cavernous, domed Olympic Stadium.
It may also take years to happen, if at all. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is open to expanding from the current 30 teams, but first wants to settle stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa Bay.
Plante said helping to find stadium site is one way the city could help the Montreal bid.
Garber said the mayor can also assist by meeting with Major League Baseball representatives or team owners if they want to discuss the bid.
“Stephen made it clear to the mayor that the baseball file is a slow-moving file,” said Garber. “If there’s a team that can move to Montreal or a new team that can be established in Montreal, we’ll figure out what conditions are needed to attract that team.
“We’re not asking the city for anything today other than for the city to support the idea of major league baseball being back and being good for the city of Montreal, and Stephen will continue to do his work and we’ll continue to hope that we have some success.”
Bronfman, whose father Charles was the Expos’ lead owner in their first years, said Plante’s support “means a lot. If this is going to work, everyone has to be on the same page and we need the support of everyone.”
Support for baseball’s return has been building, boosted partly by the Toronto Blue Jays playing a pair of well-attended pre-season games at Olympic Stadium for the last five years.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard also backs baseball, as long as it is to taxpayers’ benefit.
“I also like baseball and Montrealers like baseball a lot,” said Couillard. “You saw recently at the stadium they drew (25,000) people on a Monday night.
“There’s a market there, an interest. I always said the following: major sports is a business and a business is for making money. The main investors, and practically the only investors, should come from the private sector. If one day they want the government as a partner, it must be a partnership that allows Quebecers to make money too, not just the business.”