MONTREAL — The initial enthusiasm from Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Quebec government for a proposed Major League Baseball stadium in Montreal was slightly tempered Thursday after an opposition party cautioned against sinking public money into the project.
As news broke that the group pushing for a return of Major League Baseball to Montreal had chosen a site on the Peel Basin in southwestern Montreal for a new stadium, two cabinet ministers reacted positively.
Chantal Rouleau, the minister responsible for Montreal, said the government was "very open" to the proposal and Pierre Fitzgibbon, economy and innovation minister, said the government would be ready to get involved financially if it felt it could get a return on its investment.
But on Thursday, the left-leaning Quebec solidaire came out swinging, arguing against spending any public money on the return of baseball.
"We are for and favour the return of the Expos to Montreal," Vincent Marissal, a Montreal-area Quebec solidaire member said in Quebec City. "We think it would be a good thing if there’s an interest and if it’s viable, all the better.
"But we’ll ask the government not to commit public funds in this venture because we think baseball is a private business, a profitable business that should work under the principles of private enterprise."
A motion introduced by Quebec solidaire passed in the national assembly, supported by all parties, asking that the government not subsidize the proposed stadium or the purchase of a team.
Stephen Bronfman, executive chairman of Claridge Inc., and his right-hand man, Pierre Boivin, have been registered since mid-December to lobby the provincial government to help them with the development of the plot of federally owned land south of Peel Basin.
Bronfman, who leads a group of Montreal businesspeople seeking baseball’s return to Montreal, had indicated in December the site was his preferred spot for a stadium. The group has said a 35,000 seat downtown location with public transit access would be essential to a team’s success.
Last December, the group of investors collectively known as the Montreal Group released a market study concluding the project would be viable and would generate strong interest among fans and the city’s business community.
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante called it "good news" that the promoters have chosen Peel Basin but added she is waiting on a business plan. The land being sought is currently owned by Canada Lands Company, a federal Crown corporation.
Concordia University sports economist Moshe Lander said Peel Basin is a good choice — just off downtown Montreal but away from the eastern part of the city where the Montreal Expos toiled for decades. The Expos moved to Washington after the 2004 season.
"It’s moving slowly but moving forward," Lander said. He doesn’t see a team coming to Montreal for at least three to five years and noted the city will have to compete for a club with others in North America like Portland and Las Vegas. The other question will be who will pay for a new facility.
"It’s going to move slowly, baseball doesn’t have any natural competitors," Lander said. "Also, baseball has it’s own kind of internal problems."
Television deals have meant revenue spikes in every market but some markets like Oakland, Miami and Tampa Bay play to near empty stadiums. There’s a large gap in payrolls among teams — ranging from $51 million to $220 million for the top club.
"That’s a huge discrepancy that needs to be addressed," Lander said. "They need to get this stuff right before they deal with adding a team."
Matthew Ross, chairman and founder of ExposNation, a grassroots group working to get baseball back in Montreal, called it positive news.
"It’s encouraging that the local group continues to do its due diligence locally, but at the end of the day, it’s still up to Major League Baseball whether Montreal gets a franchise, whether it’s relocated or expansion," Ross said.
Before tabling the motion at the legislature Thursday, Marissal raised the example of Quebec City’s Videotron Centre, a $400-million arena that was built with public money before a National Hockey League team had committed to coming.
"We put the cart before the horse," Marissal said, noting that while there was plenty of bluster about an NHL return, the arena still serves as home to a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team.
Bronfman said last March that MLB had made it clear that a firm plan for construction of a new stadium, including its financing, was the only way baseball would return. Bronfman assured that the Quebec City experience would not be repeated and that no construction would begin until a franchise has been confirmed.