THUNDER BAY -- The vast majority of residents want a plebiscite to decide the fate of a proposed $100-million event centre, claim some members of the Concerned Taxpayers of Thunder Bay.
The group, headed by Ray Smith, has been conducting informal polling around the city, handing out ballots at Thunder Bay Mall, Northwood Plaza and at their own recent open houses calling for the question to be put to voters on Oct. 27.
The ballot box was conspicuously absent at Tuesday’s open house, when the city unveiled the latest drawings of what the facility might look like.
According to Smith, 95 per cent of the 444 respondents said they wanted a question put to the public, while 75 per cent are opposed to the project at all costs.
The group hopes to survey more than 1,000 residents by summer’s end.
“The public has been telling us the main reason they are opposed to the city building an event centre is that they simply can’t afford it. Many taxpayers have informed us they are now at the breaking point trying to cope with exceptionally high municipal taxes and building an event centre will eat up even more of their income,” Smith said Thursday, reading a prepared statement.
Mayor Keith Hobbs dismissed the numbers outright.
"I think those numbers are probably skewed and I think surveys like that are right out to lunch," Hobbs said. "We're doing our homework. If our survey comes in at 55 per cent or 60 per cent in favour, that's good enough for me."
Originally forecasted to cost $106.1 million, the city earlier this week slashed about $10 million worth of amenities from the project, axing a planned bus terminal, pedestrian walkway over Water Street and a 200-stall parking structure.
They’re expected to have a guaranteed maximum price from Thunder Bay Live, their preferred partner in the project, by the end of July.
City officials have not stated if, or how much, taxpayers can expect to see their tax bills rise should the centre go forward.
Smith said there’s no doubt in his mind the project will force residents to dig deeper into their wallets to cover the costs, including an estimated $1.2 million operating deficit in the first year alone.
“Right now the public has basically been slapped in the face and had no say in any of this, regarding the cost, the convention centre, the location, and the timing,” Smith said, adding the 3,700-seat Fort William Gardens still has 20 to 30 years of life left.
The city has just wrapped up an extensive, 14-question scientific poll on the event centre, contacting people via landline and cell phones. The poll, conducted between May 8 and May 22, is accurate plus or minus three per cent, 19 times out of 20.
The results are expected to be released on June 9. The poll questioned people about their level of support or opposition, and why, atitudes toward affordability and potential tax increases, project awareness and how likely people will be to attend events.
"It's highly accurate," said Karen Lewis, the city's director of corporate communications, adding she thinks the public is savvy enough to understand not all poll results are the same.
Asked why he won't just accept the city’s poll results, Smith promised his poll would be more extensive.
“We’re not finished. We’ll have more than the city and ours is not costing anything. The bottom line is we will continue with this, right to the finish line, right to the end of the year,” he said.
Smith also denied people were grabbing handfuls of ballots and voting multiple times, an accusation some had made about his methodology.