Stadium’s funding worthy of red card

Spend cash on kids, not millionaires

By DAVE PERKINS*

OUR three levels of government feel obliged to drum up a photo op to illustrate that they have honoured their commitments to building Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s cash-grab soccer stadium on the CNE grounds.

It’s just another layer of BS around a wasteful and unnecessary project.

The federal Conservatives, even before they were elected, had publicly committed themselves to the $27 million earmarked last year by the federal Liberals for the questionable project. Ontario and the city also were long ago along for the ride, for $8 million and $9.8 million, respectively. For a fraction of the money they could have fixed up a handful of smaller stadiums, improving conditions for thousands of local kids playing soccer, but then how would our politicians end up sitting courtside at the Air Canada Centre?

MLSE suggests it is inserting $18 million into the project, but look closer. The wards of the $96 billion Ontario Teachers Pension Plan are on the hook for $8 million; the other $10 million is a ceiling on how much they will contribute out of naming rights that they control and will sell. (Here’s betting MLSE will turn those naming rights into at least $18 million, which will get them their share of the house for zero outlay.) MLSE also has a long-term facility management contract worth $8 million to them.

The only explanation for the general timing of the latest fiasco is that soccer is temporarily hot, with the World Cup a joyful excuse for tens of thousands of people to duck work and get out into the streets to party. Our pols wish to prove they’re with the people when a brisk wind is blowing. (The precise timing, on the other hand, a half-hour before the Italy-Germany kickoff, was terrible.)

Anyway, leaving aside the dubious legality or necessity for this stadium, let’s talk instead about a federal government keeping a commitment.

For instance, in 2000 the federal Liberals made it a campaign promise that they would build a National Sports Institute at Downsview, on 500 acres of land owned by Ottawa that otherwise is barely used. It never happened and likely never will.

Doug Hamilton, the former Olympic rower who, years ago, should have been named to run the Canadian Olympic Committee, laboured to get an NSI built. It would have cost $50 million then, and Hamilton had private money lined up for a chunk of that. Hamilton beat his head against the bureaucratic walls for years, but couldn’t get the Liberals to honour their promise. Gradually, with no facilities to train elite athletes, Ontario tumbled as a feeder for Canada’s Olympic teams. Aside from women’s hockey, not one medal winner in Turin came from the GTA. Barrie’s Jeffrey Buttle was the closest and wait and see how many local kids get to the podium in Beijing.

This all comes into focus, particularly with our elected officials enriching the gang at MLSE, with the news that the Town of Markham Council has voted unanimously to conduct a feasibility study to look into locating the Canadian Sport Institute at Highway 407 and Kennedy Rd. This is the other shoe dropping from last year’s failed bid by the region for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Good luck to them, but the price tag now is projected at $220 million, not including land costs.

So said Debbie Low, president and CEO of the Canadian Sport Institute, who has representatives from Markham, from Ontario and from the feds on the board and is stitching together commitments, including land, from Markham and the private sector before coming up with a number for the public sector to consider.

Such an institute would be better at Downsview, centrally located on the subway, catering to both elite and recreational athletes, but why argue over location? It’s a dream because money required for it instead goes into yet another stadium built for pro sports and their wealthy proprietors.

* Dave Perkins is a freelance sports columnist in the Toronto Star, in which this article first appeared.

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