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Consultants like waterfront for new arena-convention hall

The consultants behind Thunder Bay 's plan to build an arena and conference centre are recommending a downtown location near the city's waterfront.
Proposed location for the arena and conference centre.

The consultants behind Thunder Bay's plan to build an arena and conference centre are recommending a downtown location near the city's waterfront.

“The downtown/waterfront site is exceptional in terms of character and potential,” said Conrad Boychuk, the city's consultant and senior director with CEI Architecture, in a news release.

The report of the second phase of a feasibility study for the proposed event centre heads to council this fall.

Boychuk said the north end Port Arthur location, next to the Prince Arthur's Landing revitalization project, would make the biggest splash in putting Thunder Bay on the map.

“A new event centre on this site would result in a truly unique entertainment venue that will garner national attention, build on the success of Prince Arthur's Landing, and promote Thunder Bay as an event destination.”

The city's north end has been designated as an entertainment district in Thunder Bay's renewal plan.

The plan is for a 5,700-seat multi-purpose facility with an attached 50,000-square-foot conference centre including meeting rooms and banquet hall seating for 1,000.

The projected pricetag is an eye-popping $106 million, which includes a 200-space parking garage.

The report recommends moving forward with an initial report for expressions of interest from the private sector.

If council approves the location, the next step is getting into more detailed design of the facility and a strategy on how to fund the development. The city has placed $25 million in an interest-bearing account.

An earlier application to the federal P3 Canada Fund was rejected, but city manager Tim Commisso said there are other funding programs and public-private arrangements available, including selling the building's naming rights or having a management firm run the facility.

“We'll look at all these options,” said Commisso. “I think the province and federal government recognize Thunder Bay as an urban centre and realize the benefits going on with a growing economy and new industries coming in.”

Such a facility would need a main tenant such as an Ontario Hockey League or American Hockey League franchise.

“We're getting multiple interest from all areas, including Lakehead for its hockey, basketball teams and convocation.”

The facility would replace the antiquated Fort William Gardens, which was built in 1951.

Thunder Bay only has to look to nearby Duluth, Minn. for inspiration. The city opened the new AMSOIL arena on its waterfront in late 2010, which replaced the nearby Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) close to its famous lift bridge.

“Duluth has been doing this with the DECC for over 30 years and it's been very successful,” said Commisso. “The Gardens has served us well for for 50 years as a venue but a city like Thunder Bay needs a major entertainment facility.”

Commisso said he encourages Thunder Bay residents to read the report and realize the potential spinoffs and the greater rewards for the downtown.

The operation would employ between 265 and 380 full-timers with a payroll of $5 million. The centre would generate more than $20 million in new spending, including $6 million in visitor spending.

“These things take five or six years; if we put it off for 10 years it'll be another 15 years before it sees the light of day,” said Commisso.

The consultants ruled out another popular location, Innova Park, a largely vacant industrial park in the mid-city area.

That site scored high for parking and ease of access because its proximity to Highway 11-17.

But Boychuk noted that dedicating a million square feet of land for parking isn't the best use of land that's better suited for incoming service companies. 

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