Dan Delmar: Quebec City’s Centre Vidéotron ‘Field of Dreams’ a Nightmare for Taxpayers
The National Hockey League announced last week that it has chosen, as expected, Las Vegas over Quebec City to house an expansion franchise next year.
“Build it and they will come,” as the Field of Dreams line goes, was the philosophical underpinning behind a government-funded arena that remains underused; a reminder that sometimes, in politics, consensus can be dangerous.
Quebec City’s Centre Vidéotron, managed by Quebecor, was paid for entirely by the municipal and provincial governments at a cost of $370-million. The story of how it came to be is complicated; why it came to be may be less so.
While Montreal voters have been fairly consistent and predictable over the decades, those in Quebec City have been more volatile. Before the past few elections, campaigners in all three main parties worked on the assumption the capital region was winnable.
With a popular, straight-talking mayor musing back in 2007 and onward about the possibility of an NHL return, it was tempting for then-premier Jean Charest to pledge his support, to avoid breaking the hearts of local hockey fans — and voters. By 2009, Mayor Régis Labeaume was in discussion with league officials and ground was broken by 2012.
At no point has any NHL official indicated that Quebec City would eventually be granted a franchise.
That didn’t discourage Labeaume, Charest and Quebecor owner Pierre Karl Péladeau (prior to his stint in politics), whose plans were boosted by predictably favourable polling results in the area. Virtually all of Quebec’s political class viewed the haphazard plan through rose-coloured glasses and there were few dissenters because … who is going to come out against hockey?
“My own feeling,” Labeaume said in October 2013, “is that I’m confident we’ll have a club in September 2015.”
In 2013, Quebec City granted Quebecor exclusive rights to manage Centre Vidéotron, which it would later name after one of its subsidiaries. Péladeau’s company would pay $33 million to use the arena, along with $3 million in annual rent and 15 per cent of profits.
That contract, which was not awarded through an open tender call, was so problematic that members of the National Assembly had to pass Bill 204 in 2011 legitimizing it, sparing burdensome court challenges from do-gooding democrats.
Without an NHL franchise, and the arena being used only sparsely for concerts and minor league hockey games, the operation has been running a deficit. Ever the committed partner, the municipal government pledged in the agreement to split losses with Quebecor. Adding insult to injury, just before the NHL awarded the franchise to Las Vegas last week, the municipal opposition revealed the city will have to cut a cheque for nearly $730,000 to Péladeau’s company.
Faced with expected outrage, Labeaume implied critics were engaged in some kind of “media war” against Quebecor, as if there shouldn’t be genuine concern over a sweetheart deal that sees arena profits subsidized and losses partially absorbed by government.
Also worth noting: Labeaume officiated Péladeau’s wedding last year. While the mayor isn’t necessarily guilty of favouritism in the arena deal (it’s entirely possible no other suitors would have presented themselves), it’s difficult to conceive of a more inappropriate use of his time given their shared publicly subsidized failure.
While most Quebecers would applaud the return of the Nordiques, there is no justification for using public funds to achieve that goal, even with an NHL guarantee. These pro sports megaprojects are risky; the Molson family initially lost money after using their own funds to build what is today Montreal’s Bell Centre, home of the rather profitable Canadiens.
Economists have warned for decades that subsidizing pro sports stadiums will not generate economic growth, but this was of little concern to the former premier, the mayor and the mogul who had a vision — and tacit support from the ever-generous Quebec taxpayer.