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Study bolsters case for waterfront trail

Boosters of a Thunder Bay waterfront trail have released economic impact and public opinion data they hope will pave the way for a multi-million dollar fundraising campaign.

THUNDER BAY — A coalition pushing for a waterfront trail connecting Thunder Bay’s north and south ends has released a feasibility study they say demonstrates significant benefits and strong public support.

An economic and tourism impact study released Tuesday estimates the trail could draw nearly 8,000 visitors a year to the city, generating close to $800,000 in spending.

The city has tentatively sketched out a long-term vision for a 13.5-kilometre multi-use trail running from Fisherman’s Park in Current River south to the Jackknife Bridge, via Mission Marsh.

The feasibility study was commissioned by Destination Northern Ontario, the Thunder Bay CEDC, Trans Canada Trail, and the Waterfront Trail Rotary Community Action Team, a local group formed to encourage the city to follow through on the plan.

There’s no denying that will be a big lift - the trail is expected to take over $20 million and more than a decade to build, and depend on negotiations with numerous private property owners.

Broken down as a yearly average, that would require the city to more than triple its current annual trail spending of $300,000.

Advocates believe the investment will bring even greater benefits, however, and have pledged to help with costs. Rotary is forming a registered charity intended to begin private fundraising efforts for the trail next year, said WTRCAT team lead Warren Philp.

Philp views the trail as the next logical “foundational piece” in developing the city’s waterfront, after remaking Prince Arthur’s Landing more than a decade ago.

Just as that municipal investment set the stage for business development in the north core, and a nearby waterfront art gallery and potential science centre, he believes a waterfront trail will bring spinoff benefits.

“The [momentum] that’s going to build around an expanded trail… will create its own excitement,” he said. “All of that private and additional public funding and projects have come as a direct result of some city vision – so let’s take the next step.”

The organization has outlined its vision in a flyover video showing the proposed route.

In addition to furthering community well-being, the feasibility study suggests the trail could drive increased tourism, boost business development along the waterfront, offer a venue for community and sporting events, and help attract and retain residents to the city.

It estimates the trail would draw 7,800 visitors a year to the city, driving annual visitor spending attributable to the trail of $789,000.

It pegs the annual total impact of the trail on the city’s GDP at $466,500.

Sectors expected to benefit most from the trail are retail, food and beverage services, and arts, entertainment, and recreation.

The study estimates a total construction cost of $25.8 million for the trail, generating $13.6 million in labour income.

Deloitte used the province’s Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model alongside other research and figures from the Thunder Bay CEDC to generate the estimates.

Sarah Lewis, a manager with Deloitte Canada, said the significant impact points to how a waterfront trail would be used by a wide variety of visitors.

“When we talk about tourists, we’re not only talking about people visiting on the cruise ships, people coming up from the U.S., people who are interested in [trails] – we’re also talking about those who have family and friends living in the region or who are travelling to the city,” she said.

“When someone visits the community, visits the trail, decides to spend money at a local business because the trail is close to a commercial area, that’s the type of economic impact we’re talking about.”

The study also identified significant public enthusiasm about the project, finding 90 per cent of respondents in a phone survey support the development of the proposed waterfront trail, while 82 per cent agreed it would attract more tourists.

The survey collected responses from 154 residents in January, and was weighted using 2021 census data for Thunder Bay.

Around 48 per cent of respondents expected their overall use of the city’s trail system would increase if the trail were built.

In 17 interviews, stakeholders from business, industry, recreation, culture and heritage, and environmental organizations tended to agree the trail should hit points of interest like Fisherman’s Park, Prince Arthur’s Landing and the new waterfront art gallery, downtown Fort William, and the Mission Marsh Conservation Area.

They suggested trail infrastructure including signage, water fill stations, garbage bins, safe crossings, washrooms, lighting, bike racks, viewing platforms, and rest spaces.

The study also acknowledged challenges, calling the need to negotiate with multiple property owners along the route “a risk for project implementation.”

Safety was also identified as a key consideration, with trail design enhancements including lighting, signage, and monitoring suggested.

The WTRCAT was established in 2021 by the Port Arthur Rotary Club.

Local Rotarians have pointed to their "proven track record," including raising $200,000 in the 1990s to support trails between the college and university, which helped secure matching commitments from both the province and the city.

Rotarians saw the need for similar community organizing today, Philp said.

“There hasn’t been a trail association operating in the city since the late ‘90s, and that hasn’t really been a good thing in terms of [advancing] active transportation,” he said. “There have been advances… but we point to inactivity for 10 to 15 years on the waterfront trail expansion as a key reason why a trail association still is needed.”

WTRCAT members include HAGI, Special Olympics Thunder Bay, the Lappe Nordic Ski Club, the Thunder Bay Hiking Association, Firefighters Ten Mile Road Race, and a representative from Fort William First Nation’s band council.

The group called on the city earlier this year to begin planning for long-term investment in the trail.

They propose allocating funds from the city’s Renew Thunder Bay fund, which has a balance of just over $17 million. The fund is intended to support projects that secure matching funding from both the province and the feds.

The proposal has generated both enthusiasm and hesitation, especially over costs and property rights issues, with one city councillor dubbing the planned route “a trail through the middle of no-man’s land.”

The feasibility study results will be officially presented to city council next week.

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