Quebec City, province say arena project will go ahead with or without Ottawa

There’s no federal cash, no private sector commitment, and absolutely no guarantee NHL hockey will ever return.

QUEBEC — There’s no federal cash, no private sector commitment, and absolutely no guarantee NHL hockey will ever return.

But Quebec City has announced it will nonetheless begin construction within several months of a new NHL-style hockey arena — with or without any involvement from Ottawa or private industry.

The announcement came after months of spirited national debate was prompted by the prospect of federal tax dollars being used to build an arena for a non-existent NHL team.

The projects’s backers announced Thursday that, without any guarantee of outside cash pouring in, they were going with Plan B.

Mayor Regis Labeaume and Premier Jean Charest told a crowded news conference the project will proceed with a 50-50 funding arrangement between the province and city.

The mayor said he planned to discuss the matter immediately with NHL bosses.

“I will announce in the coming hours to the commissioner of the National Hockey League, Gary Bettman, that Quebec City will go ahead with the construction of a new multi-purpose amphitheatre in partnership with the Quebec government,” Labeaume said.

Charest says the province will increase its funding commitment and is now ready to pay half the arena cost — as long as the total price tag doesn’t exceed $400 million.

Charest says the door’s always open if Ottawa or the private sector want to contribute later.

But there were some notable absences at Thursday’s news conference: nobody was there from Ottawa, or from Quebecor Inc., the media empire that has been talking about bringing NHL hockey back to Quebec City.

The city’s initial financing plan fell apart when Ottawa, fearing a national backlash, resisted the request for roughly $200 million in public funds.

Another key player was also absent from the news conference: the NHL. Bettman has declared that, even with a new arena, there’s no guarantee Quebec City will get its Nordiques back.

A reporter asked how anyone could make an ethical justification for using public money this way — especially in such a heavily indebted province, where so many people can’t get access to a family doctor or even to a bed in overcrowded hospitals.

The famously feisty mayor responded by unloading on him.

“It’s extremely simplistic to put it that way,” Labeaume said.

“Go ask the people of Quebec City what they think. . .

“The people of Quebec City want an arena. You can talk all you want about ethics, about making parallels with hospitals that are in my opinion inappropriate.

“I’m sorry. We live in a society and there’s lots of things in a society. We live in a community. By the way, I promised an amphitheatre in the last election and I was elected with 80 per cent of the vote. Are you trying to say the people who voted for me have no ethics?

“I’m sorry — that doesn’t work. And I sincerely believe those kinds of comparisons are, frankly, useless.”