Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Josee Verner comments on the future arena for a professional hockey team at a news conference Thursday, January 27, 2011 in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
QUEBEC - The federal government hit the pause button on the contentious Quebec arena debate Thursday, announcing a delay in any funding announcement for a project that has roused passions across the country.
The government says it will give the city's mayor time to raise more private-sector funding before it considers a federal role.
The Conservatives' top local minister, Josee Verner, held a news conference to say the government has yet to receive a proposal that includes private-sector money.
She also described the project as mired in too much uncertainty. Verner said the feds only learned through the news last week about the intention of the arena's most vocal supporter—the Quebecor media empire—to invest some of its own money.
"I can't present a file like that either to the prime minister or to my colleague Finance (Minister Jim Flaherty)," Verner said.
"We need a file where we have all the information we need. . . We do not have everything we need."
Ottawa's move comes just ahead of a possible federal election—which will happen if the government's budget is defeated several weeks from now.
The arena issue could easily flare up during a campaign, not only with Quebec City voters or those in other cities seeking new sports buildings—but also with taxpayers angered that their money would be used to build an arena for a non-existent NHL team.
Thursday's announcement could push any final federal decision back until after an eventual campaign.
Verner invited Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume, who is spearheading the project, to keep working on finding private investors.
The mayor, meanwhile, has begun saying that he's preparing for a scenario in which the federal government has no role in the project.
The plan was initially estimated to cost $400 million and, supporters hoped, would have been funded entirely by taxpayers at the federal, provincial and local levels. That was before a public backlash began brewing.
Finally, this week, the city conceded that the $400 estimate was only a rough one and a final price tag might only be known in a few months. Verner referred to that uncertainty at her news conference.
She said that there is no precedent for an arena being built entirely with public funds.
Verner added that she hopes the arena gets built and stressed that the federal government is not slamming the door on participation.
"The door is not closed from the federal government—far from it," Verner said.
But the issue of Quebec—which lost its NHL team in 1995—getting federal money for a $400-million hockey arena has prompted a fiery national debate.
That debate was revived this week when the Quebecor media empire, which wants to bring a team to Quebec, announced that it will put some of its own money—"tens of millions of dollars"—in the project.