Support lacking for publicly funded arenas

A new poll suggests a majority of Canadians don’t want the federal government pouring tax dollars into arenas or stadiums for professional sports teams.

OTTAWA — A new poll suggests a majority of Canadians don’t want the federal government pouring tax dollars into arenas or stadiums for professional sports teams.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey found 55 per cent of respondents opposed federal funding for such facilities.

Forty-one per cent were supportive.

However, the number who were strongly opposed (24 per cent) or strongly supportive (11 per cent) was relatively low, suggesting opinion could yet be swayed one way or the other.

“That certainly said to me it’s not necessarily the most emotional (issue), the topic of most engagement for people,” said Doug Anderson, Harris-Decima’s senior vice-president.

Support was highest in Quebec, where the provincial capital is lobbying hard for federal money for an NHL-calibre hockey arena.

Quebec City’s push for cash has put Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, already steeped in record red ink, in an awkward spot.

While investing in a Quebec City arena could boost the Conservatives’ sagging electoral fortunes in the province, it could also generate a backlash in the rest of the country. Anticipating as much, Harper has suggested any funding for sports facilities would have to be shared equitably across the country.

Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Regina and Hamilton have also expressed interest in federal money for new or upgraded sports venues.

Yet even though their provinces potentially stand to benefit, the poll suggests opposition to federal cash for pro sports facilities is highest — at 62 per cent — in Alberta and Manitoba-Saskatchewan.

The prime minister used to be dead set against such funding. Back in 2000, when Harper was head of the National Citizens Coalition, he lambasted Jean Chretien’s Liberal government for offering financial assistance to the money-losing Ottawa Senators.

“Canadians are being forced to subsidize millionaire hockey team owners and that’s a mistake,” Harper said then.

The public backlash was so swift and furious, the Chretien government withdrew its offer of financial help within 72 hours.

Flash forward 11 years.

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume hopes an arena will help his city lure back an NHL team 15 years after the beloved Nordiques left for Colorado. Those hopes do not appear to have been dashed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s insistence that the league has no plans to expand or move a team to the city.

The municipal and provincial governments have already committed to providing just over half the estimated $400 million tab for the project.

Harper has said his government would consider picking up a share of the tab, provided that the private sector makes a significant contribution.

Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau last month offered to kick in “tens of millions of dollars” — a comment the Harper government welcomed as “encouraging.”

The province and municipality are currently reviewing Labeaume’s $400 million cost estimate, which had a whopping 75 percentage point margin of error.

The telephone survey of 1,000 people was conducted Jan. 27-30 and is considered accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

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