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Public art is a mainstay behind Thunder Bay's waterfront revitalization

Calvin Brook was a teenaged camp counsellor at Quetico Provincial Park when he first laid eyes on Thunder Bay .
The Gathering Circle (top photo) uses reclaimed logs in an amphitheatre setting. It is one of the signature pieces of Thunder Bay's waterfront revitalization project, Prince Arthur's Landing, which features a large display of public art from local and national artist.

Calvin Brook was a teenaged camp counsellor at Quetico Provincial Park when he first laid eyes on Thunder Bay.

There was something about the majestic plateaus of the NorWester Mountains overlooking sparkling Lake Superior that left a lasting impression on the future architect and urban designer.

“Coming back you're really struck by the scenery of the area because you're surrounded by these mountains, which is quite unusual for Ontario,” said Brook, a principal at the Toronto-based architectural and urban design firm Brook McIlroy.

“It adds a quite a powerful, natural setting.”

The spirit of the surroundings has created inspiration for his firm to pour its collective passion into the renewal of a stretch of parkland along Thunder Bay's 50 kilometres of public and working waterfront.

Once heavily reliant on forest products and the movement of Western Canada grain, Thunder Bay's economy has diversified into more white collar, knowledge-based jobs in health care, life sciences and IT back office support.

The north end business core of Thunder Bay – the former Port Arthur – has been designated by the city as its budding entertainment district.

With Prince Arthur's Landing at Marina Park, the $130-million public-privately funded development was meant to connect the downtown to its inspiring shoreline, and exhibit the cultural and industrial past of its historic port.

“That was really the intent of the project, to have a place where you could bring visitors and sort of change the perception of Thunder Bay,” said Brook.

His team captured that feeling through the design of new buildings and a large collection of outdoor public art.

“What we wanted to do was create something that was unique to Thunder Bay, something you wouldn't find in other cities. That's why we were interested in sort of an architectural expression that was contemporary but used local materials. The whole idea was weaving cultural pieces through public art.”

With a $760,000 arts budget, both national and local visual and literary artists submitted pieces to celebrate the city's unique heritage.

Engraved on stone blocks and exhibits throughout the site are noticeable prose and poetry extracts that signify the spirit and culture of Thunder Bay.

Brook's associates had great historical assets to work with on the 35-acre site, including the former CN train station and the nearby Baggage Building, a freight-handling shed, built in the early 1900s, that was expanded to house an arts centre.

New structures were added like Mariner's Hall and the Water Garden Pavilion with an adjacent skating rink which attracted more than 1,300 skaters over the Family Day long weekend last winter.

“That's the nice part of its character,” said Brook. “I think it's a combination of contemporary and heritage structures.”

The Gathering Circle, an amphitheatre-like bowl on a small peninsula with reclaimed logs as benches, is accented with the Aboriginal Woodlands-style renderings of the late Roy Thomas and his son, Randy.

“I think it's fantastic. I like all of it,” said Brook. “I think it will help put Thunder Bay on the map.”

For his small firm of 25 employees, Prince Arthur's Landing has been “all-consuming.”

Government infrastructure funding guidelines squeezed what was to be a five-year project window into a shorter window.

“We've basically spent three years just working non-stop on this.” With 28 sub-consultants of various disciplines handling the engineering, public art and the marina expansion, “we were managing a huge team. It was very intense, but it was also a lot of fun.”

In the midst of the design was a municipal election and change of mayors that, luckily, didn't downsize or scuttle the project.

“That was definitely a debate at the time. Because the city had leveraged so much money from other (funding) sources, it would have been crazy to turn back.”

The city's $22-million investment was leveraged into a $130-million project.

“That's a pretty great scenario for any community.”

As Brook knows from past experience, people are passionate about waterfronts, and Thunder Bay is no different.

“This one was quite controversial because of the residential component.”

That involves the next phase with the construction of a four-star hotel and two condominiums by Winnipeg-based Manshield Construction and the Resolve Group.

The 2.65-acre city property was recently sold to the developers for $662,000. The city expects to deposit $1 million annually in property tax revenue.

Partly because of the city's checkered past with shoreline development, Thunder Bay waterfront manager Katherine Dugmore absorbed her share of barbs from a core group of citizens objecting to the project's scale and cost.

“In some ways, the waterfront generated almost as much interest as siting a landfill would,” she said. “The community did show appropriate interest because what we're doing was a massive change and you are bound to have people active.”

But she has no complaints. It's kept the process honest and accountable.

“From my perspective, it's been challenging because it adds a whole other layer of planning to the process. The controversy over the residential had me going back and retracing my steps, my logic and my rationale in questioning, is this right for the waterfront?”

But the development has already achieved its goal as a catalyst for urban renewal with trendy new restaurants and nightspots opening nearby and existing Thunder Bay businesses relocating to the rebranded 'Waterfront District,' well ahead of the official June opening.

A city-owned property just inland from Prince Arthur's Landing is on the shortlist as a possible site for an arena and convention centre.

“The hope is that it will generate a lot more tourism, which I think it will when the hotel is built,” said Brook. “We're hoping that it will have a ripple effect in generating business on Red River Road.”

Brook sees so much potential for future work that the project office is now permanent.

“We hope to keep our office here forever. We are working on a couple of other waterfront initiatives on the adjacent city land to the south which we're looking at as more of traditional park-type space. Thunder Bay Art Gallery is very interested in relocating to that site.”

Development of that property is on hold pending an environmental assessment due to the presence of historic sunken vessels used to create shoreline.