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Harper opens door to federal funds going to build pro sports arenas

OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper has flung the doors open to the possibility of federal funding for professional sports stadiums across the country, saying if his government sends money to Quebec City it will do the same for others.

Harper stressed that no financing would go directly to pro sports franchises, but arenas and stadiums were another matter.

"In terms of financing major sports facilities, there are demands here, there are demands in Quebec City, I am aware of demands elsewhere," Harper told reporters Thursday in Saskatoon.

Regina is seeking federal cash for a new multipurpose stadium that will house the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL.

"In terms of financing these things going forward, we're going to have to respect the precedents we have had in the past and be sure any treatment we're prepared to make to one city we're prepared to make to all," said Harper.

The Saskatchewan cabinet minister responsible for the Regina stadium proposal was encouraged by Harper's comments.

"Saskatchewan is not going to get the Olympics or the Pan American Games or the Commonwealth Games, but a facility like this would increase our entertainment options," said Ken Cheveldayoff, who attended Harper's appearance.

The distinction between subsidizing pro sports franchises and paying for arenas can be a very fine line, if not indistinguishable. Any prospect of returning an NHL team to Quebec City after a 15-year absence depends on a new $400-million arena being built.

Quebec wants Ottawa to kick in around $170 million.

Harper didn't dismiss the notion—on the same day Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced an end to enhanced Employment Insurance payouts due to budgetary restraints.

The optics have already spurred heckling from the bleachers, and even from the Conservative home bench.

Some Tories from outside Quebec were taken aback when they saw some of their colleagues don Quebec Nordiques jerseys earlier this week in a well publicized photo op. Just two weeks ago, Treasury Board President Stockwell Day told reporters that Quebec City, or other cities, shouldn't expect any dough for arenas, and no caucus discussion on the issue had taken place.

"We've been clear that professional sports teams—including the NHL of which we're all big fans—won't be receiving federal government dollars," Day said then.

With stimulus money about to dry up early next year, and the government turning its sights on deficit slashing, the notion of spending borrowed dollars on professional sports arenas strikes some Conservatives as off side.

"If you're going to say to people, sorry there's no funding increases for the national child tax benefit ... or infrastructure, these all become harder messages to deliver if this goes ahead," said one MP, on condition of anonymity.

Edmonton is yet another city looking to build a new arena for the NHL's Oilers, at a cost of $400 million. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach says he's no supporter of public money going towards building stadiums.

"We are trying to catch up with a badly needed infrastructure in health and schools but just coming back from Ottawa and of course the pressure is on the federal government to participate in some way in building the arena but that's not the case here," Stelmach told reporters in Calgary on Thursday.

Calgary Flames president Ken King was pleased to hear about Harper's interest in the Quebec City arena project.

His NHL club has plans to unveil a private-public proposal to finance the construction of a new home.

"I'm encouraged that the federal government feels that these venues are worthy of consideration and support," King said Thursday.

The issue of spending priorities was raised in a number of other quarters, including think-tanks and business groups.

Niels Veldhuis, vice-president of research in Canadian policy at the Fraser Institute, says numerous studies have shown the economic benefits of sports facilities are overstated.

"(Proponents) overlook the opportunity cost, which is if you had $500 million to build a stadium, what are better uses of the money in terms of increasing the well-being of Canadians?" said Veldhuis.

"If you actually look at the major infrastructure problems we have in Canada, especially in transportation ..., it would be very hard to justify the fact that a sports stadium was going to give you bigger economic gains."

Richard Truscott, director of provincial affairs for the Canadian Federationof Independent Business (CFIB), agrees.

"Health care, education, infrastructure ... I put them far ahead of funding for sports facilities, as would most of our members."

Truscott also fears demands for funding of this type will only escalate.

"The concern is whether this would ignite a race to the bottom, and by that I mean the bottom of taxpayers' pockets," he said.

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