Turning Kenora into a four-season tourism destination is the thinking behind a development process to establish a twin-plex arena and conference centre.
Located on beautiful Lake of the Woods and close to Winnipeg, the community of 15,000 has always had spectacular scenery going for it and a tourism-oriented culture in its quaint and historic downtown.
But the lack of conference and meeting space to pursue large events, especially in the sports tourism field, has left Kenora on the sidelines all too often.
“We have great hotels in the community and we don’t want to compete with them,” said Colleen Neil, Kenora’s recreation manager; “however, Kenora has lost out on a few (events) over the years because we can’t seat 500 people.”
The lack of big banquet facilities to host regional conferences and sporting or sporting-related events at the provincial and national level, like the Kraft Hockeyville competition, has held Kenora back.
“We’ve always seemed to miss that mark,” said Neil.
Kenora can host a 12- to 18-team hockey tournament at its recreation centre, she said, but it’s impossible to stage a regional swim meet at the same time.
“We’ve always maxed ourselves out.”
The 1960s-era Centennial arenas don’t have the extra space to be tournament-friendly and that’s a big downer to major sporting bodies like Hockey Canada and to accommodate national media requirements.
A junior hockey franchise has also expressed interest in coming to town, but there isn’t dedicated dressing room space at the rec centre.
A design concept and feasibility report released last February by Stantec Consulting and Nelson Architecture, a local design firm, tabs the Kenora Recreation Centre as the spot for a major $24.9-million arena expansion.
It’s thought the expansion will help Kenora continue developing as a year-round destination and increase overnight stays in hotels through hosting tournaments and concerts.
“This rec centre, for most of the winter, puts those heads in beds, and we can take that to the shoulder season, which is where we’re missing,” said Neil.
Talk of building an event centre for the performing arts has been in the cards for years.
Minaki Lodge, the once-famous Ontario government resort north of Kenora, was considered the likely venue until a major fire in 2003 brought those plans to a halt, said Chris Van Walleghem, chair of the event centre committee.
Since amalgamation took place in 2003, folding two outlying towns into the City of Kenora, the rec centre has been well-used with 37 tournaments, competitions and events being staged in 2012 and more than 121,000 visitors.
The centre contains a single ice pad, pool, fitness area and walking track.
New plans call for a 60,000-square-foot twin-plex with 1,700 seats along with 14,000 square feet of multi-purpose conference, banquet, education and training, and performing arts space built to accommodate 300 to 500 people.
Neil said Kenora would “absolutely” love to siphon off some of the tournament and conference business that usually goes to the larger cities.
“We really could be something special between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.”
Building a second rink at the rec centre has been in the city’s plans since 2010, but there has been little appetite on the federal level to fund new hockey rinks.
Neil and Van Walleghem said the local support is there, especially among ice user groups, and 82 per cent of the membership of the local chamber of commerce.
The project is moving to a business case phase to firm up the capital costs before city council gives final approval, sometime after next fall’s municipal election.
According to the project timelines, a tentative opening date is 2018, depending on government funding.
The funding formula and the split between the city, province and feds has yet to be worked out, said Neil, but new federal funding models in 2015 are expected to loosen the purse strings for new arena investment.
Some private investment options are also being explored, such as having an on-site hotel has part of the footprint.