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Thunder Bay Event Centre enters feasibility phase

The City of Thunder Bay is putting the building blocks in place for a proposed new multi-purpose event centre.
The City of Thunder Bay and its development partners are diving into the details of the design, cost and business case behind a proposed waterfront hockey arena and convention hall. (Conceptual supplied)

The City of Thunder Bay is putting the building blocks in place for a proposed new multi-purpose event centre.

The city and its consultants are forging ahead with an evaluation of a new hockey arena and convention centre as the estimated $106-million project enters the feasibility stage.

The project, also known as the Event Centre or the Multi-Plex, has been a polarizing issue in the northwestern Ontario city of 108,000.

That initial price-tag hasn’t been an easy pill to swallow for some outspoken taxpayers who picketed city hall in April and shouted down municipal officials and arena supporters at some public open houses.

“You’ve got pockets of different groups,” said Michael Smith, the city’s facilities manager, who are upset over the original building estimates, those who are not sold that a large venue is needed, along with some lingering resentment over the choice of a near-waterfront location in the city’s north end.

Smith said a next stage of evaluation, involving a feasibility study, will dive into the building’s detailed design, business plan and look to shave some costs to alleviate some of the sticker-shock concerns.

The whole package comes to city council in September.

“Certainly that’s going to be part of the exercise to see where we can (cost cuts) that was just an original estimate,” said Smith.

The project took a dramatic step forward in January when a heavyweight development consortium, known as Thunder Bay Live! came aboard, as the city’s partner for the proposed 5,700-seat multi-purpose arena and 50,000-square-foot convention centre.

A non-binding letter of intent was signed with the group consisting of True North Sports and Entertainment, Stadium Consultants International, Global Spectrum Facility Management, Lakehead University, PCL Contractors Canada and BBB Architects of Toronto.

True North Sports owns the MTS Centre arena in downtown Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Jets.

If built, the Event Centre would be the new home of Lakehead University’s men’s hockey team, but True North would likely move its Newfoundland-based American Hockey League minor league club to Thunder Bay, an hour’s flight from Winnipeg.

How much of a financing skin the Thunder Bay Live! group plans to put in the project is still a matter of ongoing negotiation with the city.

“They said they’re very interested, but obviously they’re going to want to do their homework on market sensitivity, and we’ve got to do our due diligence on the business plan,” said Smith. “Those details need to be flushed out.”

That includes the cost breakdown in public and private investment.

City and tourism officials want to replace 63-year-old Fort William Gardens with a modern multi-purpose venue that could better host the city’s burgeoning convention business and attract more trade shows and concerts.

The current federal government has no appetite for funding just hockey arenas alone, but tack on a convention hall and there’s a possibility.

Last February, Ottawa and Queen’s Park each chipped in $577,139 to enable the city to complete a detailed design and schematics for the centre. At some point, the city will be making formal funding applications for the actual capital-build.

“The city is not going to fund 100 per cent of this,” said Smith. “If no other funding is in place, then the likelihood of this going forward are slim. If the finances don’t fall into place, it certainly puts the project at risk.”

Smith also confirmed that the venue would by city-owned but operated by an arena management firm, namely Global Spectrum.

Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce president Charla Robinson is taking a non-committal stance on the Event Centre, preferring to let the studies run their course.

“At this point, we’re just supportive of them going through the process and we think it’s the appropriate way of handling a project of this magnitude.”

What’s important to the chamber is the final project price-tag, senior government buy-in, and the projected operating costs.

The chamber has been highly critical of city hall, suggesting it has not spent taxpayer dollars wisely.

“We do have an issue of tax fatigue in this community,” said Robinson. “The (city’s) operating costs are going up every year beyond the inflation rate. When you get to be double the rate of inflation, you wonder what’s happening there?”

Robinson said many of the people raising concerns are on fixed incomes and in their retirement years.

She said making a significant investment in infrastructure is good for business, but the city needs to find efficiencies and study what other cities are doing to fund similar projects.

Lakehead University professor Mike Yuan has chosen to make the Event Centre project a class exercise with an online survey for a tourism economics study.

Yuan said the Event Centre proposal gives his students some insight into the decision-making process behind a vitally important infrastructure project that has major implications for the city.

What often makes these big ticket projects a target for public backlash, he said, is incomplete information and municipalities falling short of explaining the benefits.

Ordinary citizens get fixated on the price tag “and react very emotionally and a lot of mistrust is developed.”

Yuan finds these projects can provide many amenities, and indirect business and quality of life spinoffs that can’t have a dollar figure attached to them.

But unfortunately, he said, the city hasn’t done a very good job of promoting those values.

“The city has not articulated a vision for what they want Thunder Bay to be. The residents have not heard this so they get stuck on a number.”

The comparative often made for Thunder Bay is Duluth, Minn. a three-hour drive to the south. Their public waterfront revitalization project began 30 years ago and grew into a convention centre and a new hockey arena.

“Duluth actually is a destination area and their waterfront is no different than our waterfront,” said Yuan.

“We get a lot of youth outmigration here and it’s things like the Multi-Plex, the waterfront (revitalization), and other things that make Thunder Bay a more cosmopolitan city and has the amenities that people want.”

This kind of infrastructure lures in tourists, new businesses, and promotes a positive image for the city, he said.

“My personal opinion is that Thunder Bay is in desperate need of a convention centre. It should have been the primary purpose and the hockey aspect to be secondary.”

But he said the city and its consultants need to sharpen their pencils to produce a project cost for a multi-purpose arena – about $50 million – that’s more in line for a community the size of Thunder Bay.

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