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Province promises funding for new Quebec City arena Add to ...

When the Nordiques packed up and quit Quebec City for Colorado in 1995, one of the reasons was tepid interest in using public money to replace the ramshackle Colisée.

How times have changed.

On Tuesday, Premier Jean Charest said his government is prepared to pay 45 per cent of the cost of a new arena in Quebec City - an estimated $180-million - regardless of whether the city attracts an NHL franchise or wins a future bid to host the Winter Olympics, possibly in 2022.

"We are on our way to achieving the project," Charest told a news conference where he was flanked by Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume. "We have put our money where our mouth is. So has the City of Quebec ... hopefully the federal government will see it that way."

And so the onus is now squarely on Ottawa, which has previously said it's not in the business of financing professional sports.

But on a swing through Quebec last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made enthusiastic noises about the NHL's return to the provincial capital, and the irrepressible, relentless Labeaume has a way of getting what he wants.

On Tuesday night, federal officials weren't saying yes; nor were they saying no. Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Harper, said, "We've only just received the proposal, we'll be taking a close look at it."

Labeaume has been talking up the city with senior NHL officials - the league declined comment on the latest developments Tuesday night - and insists he is backed by unstoppable public momentum. Unlike past attempts build publicly-financed buildings, there is little in the way of concerted opposition this time around.

Sporting personalities ranging from Habs great Guy Lafleur to long-time Nordiques winger Marian Statsny - who settled in the area and owns a golf course - have thrown their enthusiastic public support behind the initiative.

Labeaume hopes to nudge Harper closer to a decision on Oct. 2, when he plans to stage a mammoth public rally on the Plains of Abraham.

The mayor said he firmly believes that with a new arena, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will support Quebec's bid for a franchise.

And he's equally certain billionaire media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau will move to own a team in Quebec City once the arena is built.

"I'm going to call Gary Bettman. What we have here is a major commitment. We are halfway," said Labeaume, adding he is planning calls to the federal government as well as to Péladeau, who bid unsuccessfully for the Montreal Canadiens in 2009.

The project also comes a time when both provincial and federal politicians are keen to woo la vieille capitale.

Charest's government is basing its decision on a feasibility study conducted by Ernst & Young, which proposed the multifunctional sports complex be built exclusively with public funds.

The study suggests that because of concert revenues and the like, the project would be financially workable with or without a hockey team.

"It can make money and be viable," Charest said. "Let's get on with it. If it helps get a hockey team, so be it. If it helps us obtain the Winter Olympics, so be it."

According to another study by the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, a new arena would cost $400-million.

The city says it's willing to invest $50-million in the project. Quebec's portion could run as high as $180-million, with the federal government picking up the rest of the bill.

The feasibility study released Tuesday contended the economic spinoffs over a 40-year period would be $497-million without an NHL franchise and $593.6-million with one.

However, because of the size of the Quebec City market, it would not be a profitable venture for a private investor to commit the money needed to build an arena without the assurance that an NHL team would play in it.

Charest noted other cities in Canada received public funds to build sport and cultural complexes and sees no reason why Quebec City should be left out.

The next step will be to hire a firm to evaluate the exact cost of building and managing a major sports complex and examine various scenarios which Charest said could amount to less than the $400-million cost initially projected.

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