The first concrete glimpse of what Thunder Bay's ambitious waterfront plan could develop into was on display this fall with the opening of a skateboard and BMX plaza to hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts.
The former Port Arthur industrial waterfront has gradually been reclaimed over the years for festival-goers and boaters as Marina Park.
After years of false starts, the City of Thunder Bay is determined to take the next grand step with their endorsement this past fall of a proposal combining market and expanded marina space, with hotel and condo development through a partnership from a construction consortium lead by Man-Shield Construction.
The consortium, which includes Laureate Developments and The Resolve Group, made a successful pitch to the cit to create Prince's Arthur Landing at Marina Park.
The $60-million development calls for a seven-story hotel with 106 suites, two condo buildings of a combined 104 units, an indoor water park and a market square. The former CN passenger station will be converted into a spa and restaurant.
Man-Shield's proposal is part of a larger $126-million massive makeover to reshape the waterfront on the city's north end over the next five years.
The city has locked in their $22 million for infrastructure upgrades and are looking to the province and the feds for a matching share.
The development's layout has draw fire from local citizens and prominent business people who have sharply criticized the project for its inclusion of condos, a hotel and as overall bad planning.
With city negotiations underway to reach a final agreement with the developers, Thunder Bay councillor Frank Pullia is urging some fiscal prudence to his colleagues before forging ahead with a large public outlay of funds to prepare the site for Man-Shield.
Given the economic climate, Pullia said it is risky time to do it.
He was concerned with pressing ahead on the $4.5 million detailed design before a final agreement is in place with the developers, and before any government funding is secured.
What's key, he said, is the bank's letter of intent to extend financing to the developers. If the private sector suddenly gets cold feet and walks away, "everything is going to dissolve and everything is going to fall on the taxpayers' shoulders.
Pullia said the project scenario laid out requires the city to move forward with some major spending on detail design, environmental remediation and infilling of the existing marina to prepare the land for the development to take place.
Should anything go wrong, Pullia said taxpayers could be stuck with a $20 million bill for infilling and creating new piece of land with nothing on it.
"These projects are very risky, very difficult and are long-term, that's why I'm saying don't raise expectations too high and identify the risks."
Pullia said project is not a done deal, since council has only approved the concept.
"Now is the difficult part where we must negotiate and develop a solid plan and we can move forward under difficult circumstances.
"We want to protect the interests of the taxpayer. I want to see the thing succeed but let's do it in a proper fashion."
Though supportive of the project but is concerned about the way the city has managed the whole process, saying it has "polarized" the community.
Councillor Mark Bentz, chairman of the waterfront development committee, said the city is moving forward cautiously, "but we're not stopping. We want to continue negotiating with private sector plus government to make this project a reality."
Though not discounting the deteriorating state of the economy, Bentz said in their ongoing conversations with the developers, "they've stated that has not changed their view of the project" and want to proceed with negotiations.
"In any deal this large, there's a lot of things that need to be nailed down," said Bentz, including all the what-if scenarios.
"These are the things that our negotiators are dealing and making sure the taxpayers are protected." He pledges those safeguards will be in place once a final agreement is struck.
Bentz said Man-Shield's conceptual plan conforms with city's master plan but are "hundreds of complex things" to negotiated and finalized in the next three to six months.
He said the developers remain so enthusiastic, they are willing to invest an additional $5 million to lease the CN station, refurbish it at their cost. They also want to operate a proposed Artisans building outlined in the city's portion of the master plan.
The intent is for construction to start in 2010 once the site is prepared next year for the hotel and condo development. Bentz said the city is in contact with federal and provincial funding bodies -- including FedNor, Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, and various government ministries directly -- to start the process of securing infrastructure money. So far, "we're getting a good response there.
"A project of this size and impact commands a lot of attention and we're getting that."
City administration been instructed to "turn over all stones and start building relationships that we're going to need to make this project a reality."
As a former industrial waterfront, environmental remediation is part of the negotiations. Consultants have examined the site and the types of contamination are known as well as the clean-up costs.
Bentz said the fact that world economies are suffering may influence senior levels of government toward more infrastructure project spending, "which this is,"
"This is a great economic driver that will create construction and permanent jobs, and will be of great interest to funding agencies."
He doesn't believe the project has divided the community, but there are multiple points of view on every issue.
"Large projects attract attention. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing. Two neighbours can rarely agree on the design of a fence. When talking about a $125 million project it's bound to have people on both sides."