MONTREAL (CP) -- A federal cabinet minister said Friday that Ottawa made the first move to help keep the Expos in Montreal by opening negotiations on a $20-million parcel of land on which to build a new ball park. Alfonso Gagliano, the federal minister of public works and government services, said he asked Canada Lands Corp. to negotiate a long-term lease with the Expos on the prime downtown lot.
The federal government has suggested over the past year it would be willing to rent the land it owns just south of the Montreal Canadiens' hockey arena, the Molson Centre, to the baseball club at a nominal rate.
Gagliano stressed that he met with Expos' chairman Jacques Menard a month ago, well before Menard's pivotal meeting on Wednesday with Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard.
The federal-provincial jostling for credit in helping to save the Expos is in sharp contrast to strongly worded statements less than a month ago from Bouchard and Prime Minister Jean Chretien that taxpayers' money would not be handed to millionaire ball players.
Bouchard and finance minister Bernard Landry said they would consider contributing $7 million-$8 million a year out of a tourism promotions budget, which would allow the Expos to pay principle and interest on a $100-million stadium loan.
The provincial money was the breakthrough Menard was looking for in his bid to build the stadium, considered essential for the Expos to remain in Montreal.
On the federal side, Gagliano said the land -- and not additional funding -- was all his ministry was discussing with the National League baseball club.
The team hopes to finalize its deal with the province over the next 10 days. It would commit the team to stay put for at least 20 years. If it is sold before then, the provincial money would be stopped and the team would have to pay an unspecified penalty.
Last Oct. 7, Menard and fellow members of the Expos ownership consortium were given 150 days to come up with a financial plan, get stadium financing, bring in new investors and buy out managing general partner Claude Brochu.
The deadline passed without incident, but Menard's bid to save the club from sale to potential buyers in Washington, D.C., northern Virginia or Charlotte, N.C., has gained momentum. The Expos' say they have investments of $75 million from New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria, $10 million from the Loblaw's grocery chain and about $25 million from as-yet unnamed contributors waiting to move in. They have sold about $40 million in seat licences and corporate boxes in the new stadium and hope to restart a sales campaign soon to increase that amount to $75 million.
The Expos need to raise enough cash to build the ball park and cover losses over the next few years in Olympic Stadium, a concrete dome in the city's east end where the Expos drew fewer than one million spectators last season, lowest in Major League Baseball.
The stadium, to be called Labatt Park, is to cost between $175 million and $200 million to build and should open in 2002.
The team hopes to avoid paying municipal taxes by turning ownership of the new facility over to a non-profit organization, such as the Quebec baseball federation, which has had talks with Menard.
The new investors have indicated they won't join in until Brochu takes $15 million for his 7.6 per cent share of the team and steps aside as club president and head of the ownership group.
Including other owners looking to sell, buyouts are expected to cost about $22 million overall.
Bouchardís decision to help the Expos will obviously create many domino effects, this being the first one of them. Ottawa now has to help the team so as not to be one-upped by Quebec which means the Expos will get a favourable lease for Labatt Park. This is a huge change from a few weeks ago when both sides were bending over backwards to kick the team out of Canada. Finally, the Expos will be the beneficiaries of some political games.