Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec City 'Péladome' on ice

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MONTREAL -- Bless the arrogance of Pauline Marois. If not for her high-handed, anti-democratic tactics, the majority of the taxpayers in Quebec might not have become aware of the heist being perpetrated in Quebec City until it was too late.

Marois's breathtaking lack of respect for democracy, due process, legality and her own caucus may be enough to undermine her leadership and ensure another term for the unpopular Jean Charest.

What Marois attempted to do was force her caucus to vote for a bill to make an illegal agreement to build and operate a $400-million arena in Quebec City retroactively legal, a method so repugnant that even her own caucus is up in arms and so far four have resigned.

But blowback from Marois's autocratic methods has delayed the vote and may spare Quebec the worst political blunder since the multibillion-dollar Big O disaster.

The beneficiaries of this wildly irresponsible proposal would be Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume, Quebecor boss Pierre Karl Péladeau and, perhaps, a relative handful of hockey fans in Quebec City.

Péladeau, the union-busting bully destined to be the recipient of the taxpayers' largesse, has threatened to take his puck and go home if he doesn't get his way.

Let him go. The 'Péladome' is a terrible idea, an insane waste of taxpayers' money at a time when our schools and hospitals are strapped and desperate, when we are taxed to the hilt and wallowing in debt. When Claude Brochu was trying to line up the financing for a new ballpark for the Expos, Marois's Parti Québécois (then the party in power) refused to ante up even $25 million to get the project off the ground.

At the time, I believed Lucien Bouchard was making an error in refusing the Expos. Since then, I have become convinced it is absolutely wrong to provide public financing for professional sports venues and that all levels of government have to get out of the business of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize billionaire owners and millionaire players.

Péladeau wants a modern arena in Quebec City so he can lure one of those shaky American franchises (Phoenix, most likely) back to Canada. He wants a team to act as the anchor for a new all-sports television station.

Péladeau would thus hold a vertical monopoly: He would have the arena under a highly favourable lease, the NHL team, the broadcasting station and the cable network over which the games are broadcast. At every point in the process, Péladeau and Quebecor would make money, while the taxpayers wriggle on the hook.

If Péladeau has to have his toy, then let Quebecor build the arena, as Molson did in Montreal. Canadiens president Ronald Corey convinced Molson to build what is now the Bell Centre back in the mid-1990s at a cost of $330 million. The Bell Centre is now a smoothly functioning cash cow, with the mammoth, 21,273-seat Bell Centre sold out for every Habs game, even the exhibitions.

If the Péladome project is a good one, the private sector can build it and reap a huge profit, as the Canadiens have.

If it is not, then it should not be built at all, because when governments are called on to help out, it's often because the franchise is wobbly in the first place.

The result, almost inevitably, is that within five to 10 years the team is once again failing at the box office. The owners and the league begin casting about for another bunch of suckers willing to build a new facility and the process begins all over again. The owners and the players make millions, the taxpayers are left holding the bag, the promised economic benefits fail to materialize.

Nor are there any guarantees that a National Hockey League team could be lured back to Quebec City, even with a new arena.

At his news conference last week announcing the move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman went out of his way to discourage the notion that other teams would soon be moving north.

Look, I would love to see the Nordiques-Canadiens rivalry resumed. In its day, Montreal-Quebec was the hottest rivalry in the league, with more genuine rancour than Montreal-Boston. But I don't want to see it at the expense of school textbooks, skilled nurses or métro extensions to reduce the amount of carbon we're spewing into the air.

Thanks to the stunning arrogance of Pauline Marois, the Péladome may never become a reality. Speak well of her when she's gone.

 

--The Montreal Gazette

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2011 A18

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