The province might have considered subsidizing an American Hockey League team if only it had been given an adequate application for funding.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale said Friday afternoon it was the application that was turned down, not the applicant.
“People are wondering why we dealt with it so quickly — it’s because we had so little to deal with,” Dunderdale told members of the media.
She was responding to comments made by former premier Danny Williams earlier in the day that a decision to deny a subsidy to an AHL team was made quickly and not given proper consideration.
Williams is at the centre of the negotiations to bring the Manitoba Moose to St. John’s, contingent on the NHL transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
He said this week the hockey team would likely require some sort of travel subsidy, which would cost roughly $500,000 annually.
He’s not the one requesting the funding, though: since he’s only been retired from office for six months, that would represent a conflict of interest. The applicant is St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), which owns and operates Mile One Centre.
Dunderdale said a week before government received the application, officials from the Department of Tourism and Culture contacted SJSE and explained what was needed in order for the proposal to be considered.
“We would need a very sound proposal, we’d need a well-developed business plan, because ordinarily this is not a place where we go; this is not something we normally do. Our focus is very much on amateur sports,” she said. “What we received was a letter of request that was accompanied by several letters of support, (and) an exit survey that had been done at Mile One after some event, where people were asked what they would like to see in terms of professional hockey here in this province. Now, we can’t do any kind of analysis on that scant amount of information.”
Dunderdale said Tourism and Culture Minister Terry French reviewed the application with officials from other government departments, and — “because of the sensitivity, given that we have a former premier very publicly involved in this discussion” — discussed his decision to deny it with her. Once he provided the rationale, she agreed, she said.
Dunderdale said if SJSE came back with a more sound proposal, government would indeed review it again, but stressed it wouldn’t necessarily accept it, since it would mean a change in policy.
“I want to be very clear: we have been on the receiving end of requests for funding from professional hockey teams in particular in this province during our tenure, right back to the Fog Devils,” she said. “Every time we’ve said no. Philosophically, that’s not where we are.”
Williams said earlier in the day he was shocked by the province’s decision, and was disappointed from business and economic standpoints.
“For me, it’s a no-brainer. It’s good for the province: the economic spinoff from that team alone has been calculated to be $10 million on an annual basis,” he said. “I’d hate to see this opportunity go by. I’ve been told by the AHL that this is the last shot; we’ll never get another chance,” Williams said. “It’s there laying before us. I can take a horse to water but I can’t make her drink.”
Williams said he’d like to continue to pursue the idea, as long as the money to support it is there.
“From Mile One’s perspective, I’ve already put a $1 million of my own money into Mile One for the naming rights, so I’ve stepped up to the plate. The least the province can do is come up with half that.”
Williams said if he was still premier, the government would provide the subsidy.
He also said he can’t explain the apparent rift that has developed between the Conservative party and him since he left as premier.
“If there’s actually a rift, it’s unfortunate,” Williams said. “I’ve done everything I can for that party and I’ve been a Progressive Conservative all my life, and my family has. I gave 10 years and a bit of good hard work to the party and to the province, so if there’s anything developing on the inside, I can’t explain it."
When asked about the rift, Dunderdale said she couldn’t explain it.
“Look, I can only speak to this so often. Mr. Williams clearly has issues. I don’t,” she said.
“My job is to serve the people of this province; to be a good steward. That’s what they’ve charged me with. I’m not going to be distracted into other people’s issues or other things that really don’t have anything to do with me.”