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The provincial government wants Winnipeg to be the Canadian Football League's hub city, should a truncated 2020 season happen, and has offered up $2.5 million in support to sweeten its bid.
"We invite the CFL to play the 2020 season in our beautiful province," Premier Brian Pallister said at a Monday morning news conference.
Pallister, along with sport, culture and heritage minister Cathy Cox, said should the league and its players agree to a belated 15-week season, it would be a boon to the province's economy, particularly the tourism and hospitality industry.
"It will bring tens of thousands of hotel room stays to Winnipeg," said Cox, who added provincial analysis shows the return on investment would be "significant."
The province estimates Winnipeg's approval as the hub city would generate $45 million in business sales and $4.5 million in direct tax revenue.
"We worked hard here to become a place that’s deserving of that opportunity. We are safe for people who choose to come here, we’re safe for Manitobans, and we want to be the recipients of some good quality CFL entertainment as well," Pallister said.
On Monday, the province announced 18 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend and a five-day test positivity rate of 0.83 per cent.
Along with the bid for the CFL, Pallister also announced an additional $5.5 million in funding to support a strategy geared toward attracting major events to the province, while COVID-19 rates remain steady.
The premier didn’t provide specifics about which events the province wants to bring to Manitoba, but said there are a few irons in the fire, and any investment of tax dollars would be weighted against economic return.
Scott Jocelyn, president of the Manitoba Hotel Association, said local operators are eager to check-in guests to their properties and with leisure travel mostly on hold, hosting the CFL would be a welcome reprieve.
"I think the impact on the hotel industry through COVID-19 has been really dramatic. There are hotels today that are still not open," Jocelyn said. "We’re looking for any kind of assistance we can get for our people to get their businesses going."
Many hotel operators in Winnipeg would be able to scale their business in short order, Jocelyn said, and he anticipates most owners wouldn’t be opposed to having guests from out of town as long as health measures ordered by the province are followed.
"We need some assistance, we need some business, we need some help to get our feet back under us," Jocelyn said. "If this is an opportunity, I think the hotel community will rally behind it."
Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he has reviewed the CFL’s plan and provided feedback to the league on how it could bring the 800 players, coaches, staff, and media to the city.
A combination of precautions, including use of a bubble format (in which all people associated with the league including those who reside locally are isolated together), a quarantine period and testing will reduce risk of spreading COVID-19 to the community, Roussin said.
"We’re going to be holding them responsible for ensuring that the protocols are adhered to," Roussin said.
Opposition NDP MLA Matt Wiebe said while many fans want to see the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defend their Grey Cup championship title, other issues should take precedence.
"Manitobans have many concerns the premier didn't address, in particular how bringing players from areas in the U.S. where cases are surging could increase the spread of COVID-19," Wiebe said. "Today was another time the premier failed to address Manitobans' immediate priorities: a lack of a child-care plan, how we can support the thousands of businesses who need help and how schools will be able to reopen safely in just over a month."
Manitoba Liberal leader Dougald Lamont said he’s cautiously supportive of the CFL bid, but described the province’s push to host events as a "COVID attraction" strategy.
"We have not beaten COVID-19, we have only kept it at bay. The answer is emergency economic assistance for the hospitality industry, not putting workers and Manitobans at risk for greater exposure," Lamont said.
The $2.5 million allotted to the CFL hub proposal will be spent on expenses like food and accommodations, practice field rentals, group transportation, and "event-specific" expenses.
"I’d say to the CFL, you better get to a yes fairly quickly for Manitoba, because we may have to start moving to recruit some hockey events fairly soon," Pallister said.
The CFL season was scheduled to begin in June, and a restart plan has yet to be formally approved.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
Updated on Monday, July 20, 2020 at 5:43 PM CDT: Adds comments from hotelier and opposition.
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