Trouble in henhouse

TOM BRODBECK, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:25 AM ET

Canwest Global executive David Asper says he needs another year to get his retail development project off the ground at Polo Park before he can announce anything new on a proposed football stadium at the University of Manitoba.

Usually when something is delayed that long, after waiting as long as we have, there's trouble in the henhouse.

A three- to six-month delay would be one thing. I could see a short extension to tie up some loose ends and finalize a few contracts.

But a year tells me Asper is in trouble.

Sweet deal

Because a year usually means a lot more than a year. This isn't a case of Asper needing a little more time to cross a few Ts. This means he's having serious trouble getting the tenants he needs or raising the capital required for the project.

Remember, this is big money. Well over $100 million of private-sector cash.

Don't get me wrong. I want this deal to succeed. It's a sweet one for taxpayers. For $35 million and the value of the publicly-owned land where the current stadium stands, we get a brand-new football stadium not only for the Bombers but also for our university teams.

We get new athletic facilities on campus and a spruced up existing university stadium. Unlike some of the corporate welfare deals we've seen in the past, there's a very strong public-ownership component to this plan.

Taxpayers would be getting a very good bang for their buck.

But is it a realistic plan? Yesterday's bombshell raises a lot of doubt about that.

Naturally the downturn in the economy is having an effect on the plans. But the economy was already in the tank when Asper formally announced the deal in April. The global recession was well under way months before the announcement. Asper knew what he was getting himself into.

So there has to be more to this than just a soft economy.

In April, Asper said site preparation for the new stadium would begin this fall and that shovels would be in the ground by the spring. The new stadium was slated to be open for the 2011 football season.

The way it's going now, we'd be lucky to have shovels in the ground by 2011.

The Asper stadium deal seemed like a bit of a pipe dream from the beginning. What kind of investors would be willing to pony up over $100 million to build a stadium and other facilities at a university campus for a CFL franchise that can barely break even every year?

There's a limit

Naturally a new stadium would generate much broader revenues, including corporate boxes and other concessions and luxuries, than the current stadium does. But still, there's a limit to how much money you can make from a CFL franchise.

In fact, the whole premise of the plan is for the retail component of the Polo Park complex to subsidize the football operations. It's not the greatest way to invest $100 million.

But it's a good plan for Winnipeg, at least on paper. It solves the problem of how to run a football team in Winnipeg without taxpayers having to bail out the club every few years.

And if someone like Asper is dedicated enough to this city to take on that kind of risk, it's nothing short of extraordinary.

So extraordinary in fact, you wonder if he can really pull it off.

Yesterday's announcement gave us less hope that he can.

For more, visit Brodbeck's blog Raise a Little Hell at winnipegsun.com. Reach Tom at 632-2742 or by e-mail at tom.brodbeck@sunmedia.ca.


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