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Politics hinders Portside development (12/01)

By Ian Ross Political in-fighting at city hall has stalled the progress of Thunder Bay's multimillion-dollar Portside waterfront project.

By Ian Ross

Political in-fighting at city hall has stalled the progress of Thunder Bay's multimillion-dollar Portside waterfront project.

With no developer in place as of late November, councillors and administrators are scrambling to get the project on track in time for a March 31 deadline to secure $15 million in Northern Ontario heritage funding, and to access a further $11 million from the province's SuperBuild Millennium Fund.

Ken Boshcoff, mayor of Thunder Bay, says the major stumbling block in securing a letter of intent and finalizing a plan for Portside has been his own city council.

"There's no doubt that the issue is tarred with the fact that it was an election campaign issue 14 months ago and many of the councillors are still in a campaign mode," Boshcoff says. "Once we get over that, we can move on."

Public pressure has forced council to reassess their recent decision to drop the project's priority from first to fourth, behind a water supply upgrade.

"Right now (the project) is bogged down in the politics of it," says Boshcoff. "But we're doing our best to attract people here."

The city had been originally dealing with Thunder Bay Waterfront Development Corp. for a year, until this past summer when talks with the city broke off amidst questions over the firm's financial capability to undertake the project. The developer, Richard Blanchard, proposed a 180-room Sheraton Hotel and convention centre, a floating water park, an entertainment complex, six restaurants and a cruise ship docking facility, on the site of the former Saskatchewan Pool 6 grain elevator property.

Boshcoff says the city's vision for the property is open to any interpretation brought forth by prospective developers.

"We're entertaining different viewpoints on it at this stage," Boshcoff says. "I can't really say what it would be. We only know we've got a waterfront. People (on council) have different concepts, is probably the fairest way of describing it."

Two disgruntled councillors on Portside's advisory committee, Rene Larson and Mary Roy, frustrated with the city administration's delay in following up potential leads, have taken to contacting interesting parties on their own.

"The advisory committee is getting in the way at this stage," says Boshcoff. "I would think there's some severe issues that the municipality is unable to come to grips with...and I'm just hoping there's a role for professional people on this and there's a role for councillors."

Larson denies the advisory group is pursuing a secondary track to attract a developer, saying the mayor and councillors have had ample opportunity to sit in on conference calls with interested parties and meet Texas hotel developer Gene Barron during an information-gathering visit last summer.

"It's kind of hard to convince an outside developer that we're serious about a project when they can't take the time of day to pay a courtesy visit to meet someone from Texas (who is) interested in exploring the opportunity," says Larson.

He attributes the problem to a "difference of opinion" within council on how to develop the project, such as an insistence to build an overpass to gain access to the property without having a developer in place.

Larson says Barron is probably the city's best bet to secure private financing since other developers are on hold given the North American downturn in the tourism and hospitality sector since Sept.11.

Boshcoff acknowledges Barron is considered a leading contender among "six or seven" interested parties. Boshcoff remains guardedly "hopeful" a developer will be in place by the March deadline. If not, the project will not be scuttled, but will be re-visited another day, he says.