Government Help?

There's an expression, en bon quebecois, that neatly summarizes the plight of the Montreal Expos: pas mort, mais pas fort.

No one knows this better than Jacques Menard as he steps up in what the late broadcaster Russ Taylor used to call the nervy ninth.

The Expos board chairman has a few weeks, a month at most, to make a number of things happen before baseball commissioner Bud Selig steps in and says, "You're outta here."

First, Menard needs to reach a buyout agreement with Expos CEO and managing partner Claude Brochu. As events have demonstrated, this is easier said than done. They have agreed on a price, but not on a process.

What began as a buyout last October became a power struggle as Menard's majority-ownership consortium was unable to secure government participation in the stadium project. Brochu also wants any white knight, such as New York art dealer Jeffrey Loria, to stipulate keeping the franchise in Montreal for 20 years.

In other words, if anyone is going to move the Expos, it will be Brochu, on the authority of Major League Baseball, in the "best interests" of the game, to quote the chilling Feb. 4 letter from baseball to Menard. So Brochu is negotiating from strength. There's $15 million on the table for his 7.6-per-cent interest, based on a hypothetical value for the franchise, minus his share of accumulated operating losses. But Brochu is in a position, fully backed by baseball, to subject a buyout to the downtown stadium's going ahead and the new controlling partner's promising to keep the Expos in Montreal. Or, Brochu gets to move the club, with clean hands. His mantra in the last week is that he's waiting for baseball to tell him what to do.

Just a good soldier, following orders.

In Washington, or northern Virginia, any new owners would be delighted to have Brochu stay on as CEO. He would be rich, working and vindicated. He couldn't walk the streets of Montreal, but then he wouldn't be in Montreal.

Brochu clearly has the full confidence of Selig, National League president Len Coleman, and the other bosses in New York. You name the baseball committee, and Brochu sits on it, as he pointed out himself last week in his satellite press conference from the Expos training camp in Jupiter, Fla. It was a bravura performance, which demonstrated Brochu's considerable strengths as an executive, and his lone-star leadership style, the source of the falling out with his partners.

Yet the consortium led by Menard represents 92.4 per cent of the ownership, community and corporate equity that isn't moving anywhere. And this is the problem for baseball in ordering the franchise sold: the partnership agreement requires two-thirds of the equity to sell.

Selig might invoke the higher interests of the game in ordering the Expos sold, but that would have no standing in a Canadian court, in the event the owners sought an injunction against the sale. That's the last place Selig wants to be - in court, and a foreign court at that.

He would rather obtain the reluctant consent of Menard and the owners to sell, having explored the last option and exhausted the last hope. This is why Selig is granting Menard a final period of grace. There's no great rush - baseball doesn't have to lock in next year's schedule until June.

But Menard needs to lock in some modest commitments from government, and soon.

First, he needs the feds to play on turning over the land for the new stadium, which reverted to Ottawa when CN was privatized. Whether Ottawa sells it to the Expos for a dollar, or rents it to them for a dollar a year, the feds can be sure of one thing: the land will never be anything more than a parking lot unless the stadium is built.

But if Ottawa still needs cover, it might consider the following. The land is worth $20 million. The stadium project would produce that much in federal personal and corporate taxes during the construction period alone. And with $50 million a year in admission and concession revenues, the Expos would generate $3.5 million a year of GST revenues, or $65 million over 20 years, more than three times the value of the fallow land.

This does not require an act of Parliament. The most it requires is an order-in-council from the cabinet, on the recommendation of Public Works Minister Alfonso Gagliano, chief organizer for the Liberal Party in Quebec.

Getting the land deal done with Ottawa would have a leveraging effect on Quebec. It's an old rule of politics - in for a nickel, in for a dime.

But Quebec's dime will be the hard part. There are four people calling this dime: Premier Lucien Bouchard, Finance Minister Bernard Landry and two senior officials, Bouchard's chief of staff Hubert Thibault and roving adviser Jean-Roch Boivin.

As non-executive chairman of Hydro-Quebec, Menard has an office on the 20th floor of the Hydro building, three floors above the premier's suite of Montreal offices. If and when Menard meets Bouchard, it's not going to be with 100 reporters camped out in the downstairs lobby, but in the quiet of a Friday or Monday afternoon.

Bouchard and Landry have been holding fast to the hard line of nothing for the Expos. Menard is not seeking his dime from the fiscal framework, but from some indirect source, such a baseball lottery. At $100 million over 10 years, Loto-Quebec would be forgoing less than one per cent of the dividend it now returns to the government.

There's a menu of such options that Thibault could cherry-pick for consideration by his boss. Boivin, once chief of staff to Rene Levesque, is an old hand with the bite of a junkyard dog. But he's also a man of iron-clad honour who promises only what he can deliver.

As for Bouchard, he told the Expos last fall to go away, find some new equity, scale down their stadium project and do a new business plan, then they would talk again.

Menard has done all of the above, so very soon now, it's over to the premier. It's very much up to him to determine whether Montreal can still play in the bigs

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