WINNIPEG has come a long way, baby.
Whether the deal to keep the Phoenix Coyotes in the Arizona desert fails and the Winnipeg Jets fly home this fall, there is no question that the Winnipeg of 2011 bears little resemblance to the Winnipeg of 1996. That's largely why we're in the relocation discussion in the first place.
First, there's the obvious. The prospective owners of an NHL team, the Chipman family and David Thomson, own and operate the MTS Centre. Among other things, that gives them revenue from concession sales, which the former owners of the Jets didn't have in the old Winnipeg Arena when Winnipeg Enterprises ran the show.
The National Hockey League has undergone some significant changes as well. When the Jets left town, there was no hard salary cap. Thanks to the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, the salary cap now gives teams cost certainty that they didn't have previously.
But we're all better off now, too. Back in '96, according to the Manitoba Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate was 8.3 per cent, the median household income was $46,855 and the percentage of the population 15 years and older that had a certificate, diploma or degree from a high school, college or university was 60 per cent.
Today, those numbers are significantly better. Unemployment, even in the wake of the economic downturn, is 5.0 per cent, the median household income is $63,025 and the percentage of Manitobans with parchment on their walls is 77 per cent.
"People have better-paying jobs, their skill set is growing and they're more educated. I think we're well-positioned for the return of the NHL," said Jacqueline Storen, assistant chief statistician with MBS.
The Manitoba and Canadian economies are vastly different, too. The loonie, worth about 75 cents in 1996, is trading above parity today, closing at $1.0294 on Tuesday.
"When all of your player costs and a lot of your travel and other costs are in U.S. dollars, a dollar that's over par gives you a big improvement in your economics right off the top," said John McCallum, a finance professor at the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.
But could the loonie plummet back to its former depths or even lower? Not likely, McCallum said. Not with the emergence of China as the second-biggest economy in the world -- and with the highest economic growth rate -- and its insatiable appetite for commodities, such as energy, food and minerals. Canada produces all three in abundance.
"These commodities are going to stay high in price for quite some time," he said.
As an added bonus, the federal government, directly or indirectly, gets huge revenues from the sale of those commodities in the form of royalties and corporate taxes, all of which fuels Ottawa's transfer payments to Manitoba, which help pay for roads, schools and hospitals.
Michael Benarroch, dean of the business and economics faculty at the University of Winnipeg, is just as bullish.
"We're a resource-rich economy. Our goods are in high demand. It's very unlikely our dollar will drop to (1996 levels). Something would have to fundamentally change in the structure of the world economy and the Canadian economy relative to the U.S. economy," he said.
There's also a lot more of us here today than there were 15 years ago. Benarroch said Manitoba's population has been growing strongly for the last seven or eight years.
And, believe it or not, McCallum said a couple of landmark policies by the federal government have helped Manitoba's economy and its ability to support an NHL team. First, the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. has let a growing number of Manitoba companies significantly build their businesses south of the border.
Second, the 1995 elimination of the Crow Rate, a rail transportation subsidy benefitting farmers on the Prairies and manufacturers in central Canada, created the incentive for Manitoba farmers to process their grain here and turn it into a value-added enterprise. As a result, the province has developed a booming hog business.
Large, rich population
Manitoba is a $50-billion economy with about 1.1 million people. Next door is Saskatchewan, a $40-billion economy with about 750,000 people and northwest Ontario brings a few billion and a couple of hundred thousand people more. That makes for a regional gross domestic product nearing $100 billion and more than 2 million people.
"That's a very sizable number. If folks like the product, it's a GDP that can easily support major league hockey," said University of Manitoba finance professor John McCallum.
To put Manitoba's GDP in perspective, it's almost exactly the same size as the Dominican Republic's, which has 10 million people.
"The fact we do more with 1 million people than it does with 10 million means there's a heck of a lot of per capita income to buy tickets with," he said.