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Pro-development bylaw clears path for business

Old school thinking in Thunder Bay is making way for a new wave of planning. For Eric Zakrewski, president of True Grit Consulting, finding a suitable space to expand was turning out to be a real headache.
True Grit
True Grit Consulting's proposed new offices at Innova Park will incorporate green design principles.

Old school thinking in Thunder Bay is making way for a new wave of planning.

For Eric Zakrewski, president of True Grit Consulting, finding a suitable space to expand was turning out to be a real headache.

His growing engineering and environmental firm spent three years scoping out potential sites in Thunder Bay but he ran into a myriad of planning obstacles.

An outdated bylaw, founded on the city's heavy industrial history as a pulp and paper town, wasn't keeping up with the times.

But Zakrewski thinks a new 'business friendly' zoning bylaw, passed last summer, should open up major corridors in Thunder Bay for redevelopment into professional and technical office uses.

“This was big news. It was holding us back for three years.”

Originally, Zakrewski planned to dump $1.5 million into renovating a former 6,000-square-foot tire shop to park his 30 engineers inside. It was close to the airport, the AbitibiBowater mill and the Bombardier plant. The deal was done, but he was stopped cold by the old zoning bylaw.

It was developed in the 1980s when the forestry industry was robust; however, it limited where professional offices could be established.

“If you wanted to build a heavy tire shop to service the forestry industry, you could put one downtown, no problem,” said Zakrewski. “But it was very prohibitive to buy a property that was surplus or bankrupt...and renovate it. “

True Grit epitomizes the growth of the community's knowledge-based sector.

The company has 40 employees, split between its Thunder Bay headquarters and a smaller satellite office in Sioux Lookout. It's forecasting growth of 20 to 25 per cent in business over the next 12 months.

“We're not the only ones,” said Zakrewski. “There's been a tremendous struggle in trying to find real estate to accommodate all of these growing businesses because of this zoning bylaw.”

After being rebuffed, he shifted focus to Innova Park, a 71-acre light industrial park in the city's core, which has sat largely vacant since 1997.

Decio Lopes, a senior planner with the City of Thunder Bay, said it was time for a change to allow greater flexibility in opening up the city for residential, commercial and industrial uses.

Rewriting city zoning bylaws from scratch allowed planners to examine how professional services, like law and accounting firms, can co-exist with industry.

“We talked to the business community, real estate folks, lawyers and developers who've done business in our city to get a feel for how they see the previous bylaw working and where they see development happening in the next couple of decades,” said Lopes. “What we wanted to do was in-line with what they wanted us to do.”

It's opened up areas near the airport, on Highway 61 and highly visible business parks like Innova for technical offices like professional engineers, architects, surveyors and contractors working in the mining and forestry industry.

However, some areas in the city's commercial and industrial interior remain status quo.

Zakrewski gives credit to the city for making the changes.

“The city listened and the zoning bylaw embraces the change in the local economy.”

This past September, Zakrewski and Mayor Keith Hobbs broke ceremonial ground on the company's new headquarters at Innova Park, which begins construction next spring in preparation for a November 2012 move-in date.

The location is a 15-minute drive for clients and employees from anywhere in the city.

He promises the proposed $2.5-million building will be a calling card to entice some of the best engineers, scientists and chemists from across Canada, but also keep current employees comfortable, creatively-energized and bathed in natural light.

Utilizing elements of LEED building design, the 10,000-square-foot space will have a coffee bar and lounge, small “enclave” rooms for impromptu client meetings, and videoconferencing capabilties throughout the building.

It will also serve as an “open, creative and collaborative” space where industry, First Nations and government can gather to problem-solve.

True Grit Consulting works with remote First Nation communites in the Ring of Fire to help them understand and prepare for the complexities of the mining cycle. The company also performs environmental assessment work for miners such as Stillwater Mining's Marathon PGM project on the North Shore of Lake Superior.