A group of Sudbury business and institutional leaders are making a push for a hugely ambitious downtown convention hall and performing arts centre.
Paul Finley, project manager for the Greater Sudbury Synergy Centre, insists the city is missing out on a plethora of conference business because no venue exists locally that can host 1,000 to 2,000 delegates.
The group is putting forward a proposal for a $106-million dual-use event centre to the City of Greater Sudbury, which would include a $65-million, 127,000-square-foot event centre, a $25-million privately financed hotel, a parking garage and 15,000 to 25,000 square feet of mixed-use commercial development.
“There is a whole series of mid market-sized acts travelling North America, similar to conventions, who bypass Sudbury to go to Parry Sound and North Bay because there is nowhere to perform here,” said Finley.
The concept has been in the works since 2012 when a committee of local leaders first met.
Attempts over the years to build either a stand-alone convention centre or a performing arts space have fizzled because the building wouldn’t generate year-round traffic and would need operating subsidies from the city, said Finley, a former city economic development officer.
“This group took the challenge of trying to come up with a facility that would serve both needs for conference and performing arts space.”
To add some clout, they’ve attracted some heavyweight consultants who see value in the Sudbury market, namely Venue Management (formerly Global Spectrum); CBRE, the world’s largest real estate services firm; and PRK Consulting, a leading hospitality and tourism firm, who’ve shaped the feasibility study and financing case.
“They like the project and, along with a local development group, have indicated their interest to place a 300-room hotel as part of a mixed-use development initiative for the downtown,” said Finley.
“Our lack of ability to attract large conferences is impairing business opportunities for all hotels in this community right now. There are conferences galore that would come here that could fill three or four or more hotels.”
Finley said they’ve spoken with other developers who can establish complementary restaurants, retail and condominiums.
The project financing plan calls for federal and provincial funders to contribute $15 million each with private sector contributions and sponsorships — like venue naming rights — amounting to $15 million.
The group wants the city to contribute $11.5 million and a downtown parking lot for the site.
Finley said the city’s exposure would be limited since no operating subsidies would be needed.
Revenue from hotel bed taxes, parking revenues, and the mixed-use retail contribution would total $1.5 million annually, which would service a 25-year mortgage worth $24.4 million.
Whereas most convention centres can be money-losers, Finley confidently predicts the facility would break even in its first year.
“The marketing studies we’ve done and the management plan that we have forecasted would indicate that this building is going to be busy 360 days a year.”
The key is the quick-change “transformation technology” they plan to install — with retractable theatre seating — that creates more flexible space.
Within hours, a theatre space seating 1,400 can be broken down into three convention halls with capacity of 300 to 450, or the entire space can cleared for a trade show or for a banquet seating 1,000.
A main lobby could host social functions, an exhibit hall would have capacity for 300, and a rehearsal hall would be available for recitals and meetings. A commercial kitchen would be installed for on-site catering services.
The concept has the endorsement of Laurentian University, Cambrian College, the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, Health Sciences North, Sudbury Mining Supply and Service Association and the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI).
Finley believes those groups can drum up “fairly significant” events for the city.
“Here we are the mining capital of Canada, one of the largest mining complexes in the world, yet we can’t host a major mining conference.”
The building’s ownership, Finley suggests, could be municipally run or operated as an arm’s-length corporation, similar to the airport.
CEMI president Doug Morrison, a Synergy Centre supporter, said a performing arts centre would help him on the recruiting trail to lure top-end talent to the North.
“Within a few years we will have a shiny new (four-lane) highway all the way from Toronto to Sudbury. We’d better have a shiny new city at the end of it for it to be worthwhile.”
Morrison said it would demonstrate to out-of-towners that Sudbury has progressed into a culturally sophisticated city.
“In my era, if I made a career decision, my wife and family went along for the ride. That doesn’t happen anymore. You are recruiting the family to the whole career.”
Though the city’s economy is more diversified, old perceptions of Sudbury still persist, he said.
“One of the wives actually said (to me), this place hasn’t changed in 30 years, so why would I come here?”
A performing arts centre, in Morrison’s view, would provide a permanent home for itinerant arts and cultural groups.
“We have a very good symphony that is oversubscribed for every performance, but has nowhere to play. We have a theatre centre that doesn’t have a big enough space to play in. If you leave this long enough people will eventually say this is not the place for me to be.”
A formal application has been submitted to the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation.
The city must also weigh proposals from two local developers who have plans to replace the aging downtown Sudbury Arena with complexes on the city’s east side and south end, and a francophone group that’s championing a downtown arts and cultural centre.
Finley wants to see a receptive signal from the city within the next few months to hold the interest of their development partners.