09/20/2011 02:44 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

No Saskatchewan stadium without Riders; CFL team would bring in bulk of dough

OTTAWA - Saskatchewan tried to do an end-run around rules that would prevent the province from tapping into a pot of more than $1 billion to build a new CFL stadium in Regina, new documents indicate.

And a senior official at the Crown corporation that manages the fund alluded to a possible change in the rules for funding pro sports venues with federal cash.

The Conservatives designed the $1.2-billion P3 Canada Fund to help pay for infrastructure projects in partnership with other governments and the private sector. Money from the fund cannot be spent on facilities "primarily" used for pro sports.

Not a problem, said Saskatchewan.

The province said its Canadian Football League team would only use the venue 10 days a year. The rest of the time, the $400-million stadium would host university and high school football games, concerts, other sporting events and a few conferences.

"The Saskatchewan multi-purpose entertainment facility is not primarily a professional sports facility," says an August 2010 presentation to fund manager P3 Canada.

But it is clear there could be no stadium without the Roughriders.

The province prepared two financial statements: a conservative estimate and a rosier one. The team would account for most of the facility's annual revenue under both scenarios.

The Canadian Press obtained these and other documents under the Access to Information Act.

The conservative estimate has 31 events at the stadium, which would bring in close to $4.5 million in revenue. Of that, the 10 CFL games would bring in about $3.5 million, or 79 per cent of the facility's revenue.

The rosier estimate projects 71 stadium events and revenues of almost $4.9 million. The Roughriders would account for 72 per cent of that money.

The estimates come from a feasibility study on building a domed, all-weather stadium. The federal government helped pay for the $1-million report, and Conservative MPs Gerry Ritz and Andrew Scheer sat on an advisory committee that directed work on the study.

"The project is clearly economically feasible and will generate related and recurrent benefits throughout the province of Saskatchewan," the study says.

"The benefits are overwhelmingly positive."

But time on the clock ran out, and Saskatchewan spiked the stadium project this spring. The city of Regina is now looking at how it could build a stadium.

Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco disputed any suggestion the province tried to skirt the rules when it applied for federal cash for a stadium.

He said it was the federal government that told the province to apply to the fund.

“That advice came directly from the Government of Canada,” said Fiacco.

The P3 Canada Fund is considered a potential source of federal money for sports facilities such as the Regina stadium and a politically charged proposal for a hockey arena in Quebec City.

The arena-funding debate has been a political minefield for the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, pitting the provinces — and even some members of the Tory caucus — against each other.

Some Conservatives fretted about alienating the party's western base by helping fund a new Quebec City arena as part of a bid bring back the city's beloved National Hockey League franchise, the Nordiques.

Harper has since made it clear that his government is not in the pro sports business.

"We will not spend taxpayers' money on a professional sports arena or stadium in Quebec City," Harper said in March, just weeks before winning a majority government in the spring election.

"And we will not participate in such projects in Regina, Halifax, Edmonton, or my hometown Calgary."

But newly released documents suggest that as recently as May, bureaucrats were still trying to figure out if possible rule changes would allow Ottawa to fund sports venues such as the one in Saskatchewan.

"We are trying to determine which projects may be impacted by a potential change in (government) policy that may alter our (terms and conditions) restricting stadium-spectator facilities that have an anchor tenant that may own a team and run it as a commercial venture," senior P3 Canada official Rob Mackay wrote in a May 10 email to colleagues.

Mackay does not elaborate on the "potential change" he referred to. He was not available for an interview.

But Saskatchewan Tory MP Scheer, who now is Speaker of the House of Commons, also mentioned a policy change in March.

"We did caution them that as the funding criteria prohibited funding for professional sports facilities, that they would have to structure the project in a way that was not the focus," Scheer told The Canadian Press.

"We told them that it was a potential program that might be available, but it wasn't a perfect fit and they would have to be aware that if they did make an application through it, it would likely still require a policy change. And that's why we are where we're at today."

P3 Canada said it could not comment on project applications to the fund.

"However, the terms and conditions of the P3 Canada Fund have not changed and remain clear that 'facilities used primarily by professional athletes' are ineligible for funding from our program," spokeswoman Lisa Mitchell said in an email.

She did not respond to follow-up questions.