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City examines interest for possible multiplex facility

Thunder Bay’s proposed new multi-million-dollar multiplex facility will be under taxpayer scrutiny on Thursday night at the DaVinci Centre, as the city begins the first of a planned series of public consultations on a building city higher-ups hope wi
Tim Commisso, City of Thunder Bay's city manager. (Leith Dunick,
Thunder Bay’s proposed new multi-million-dollar multiplex facility will be under taxpayer scrutiny on Thursday night at the DaVinci Centre, as the city begins the first of a planned series of public consultations on a building city higher-ups hope will eventually replace the aging Fort William Gardens.

City manager Tim Commisso on Wednesday called it the municipality’s first chance to touch base with the public, a necessary step before a second feasibility study is conducted looking at locations, size and potential uses.

"We want to say, here’s what we know. We haven’t made any commitments in terms of where this is going to be located, how big it is, how much it’s going to cost (and) who’s going to pay for it. We want you to come and share your thoughts, whether you support it, whether you don’t support it."

Commisso re-started the ball rolling on a new facility late last year, when he pushed for the creation of a Renew Thunder Bay fund that would allow the city to leverage up to $130 million through matching funds from higher levels of government on a one-third, one-third, one-third basis.

A first-stage study was conducted and presented to council, suggesting the city would need no less than a 5,600-seat facility to house an American Hockey League or Ontario Hockey League franchise. The estimated cost of a facility this size is about $60-million.

Thunder By entrepreneurs Anthony LeBlanc and Keith McCullough, who made a failed bid to buy the NHL’s struggling Phoenix Coyotes, have publicly stated they want to bring an AHL or ECHL team to the city, though expressed no interest in contributing to a rink.

Commisso said the city has also held discussions with other parties looking to bring junior or professional teams to the city, but said because of confidentiality agreements he was not at liberty to reveal with whom they took place.

Currently the Lakehead Thunderwolves men’s hockey team is the main tenant at Fort William Gardens, averaging about 3,000 fans a game. A source close to the team said that if an OHL or AHL team arrived in Thunder Bay, it would essentially mean the end of the not-for-profit university squad.

The arena comparison suggested an OHL or AHL team would need to average about 4,500 fans a game to succeed and Commisso said the city would be looking for an anchor tenant to chew up 50 or so of the 80 to 100 events need for the facility to break even.

"If we can’t get 50 events through an anchor tenant, this project might be something we have to look at (differently)," Commisso said, stressing the rink would simply be the conduit for a potential new team, and isn’t something the city is concerning itself with or pursuing.

That doesn’t necessarily rule out the Thunderwolves, he said.

But before anything can happen, the public has to climb on board, Commisso said. Hence Thursday’s meetings, which will begin with an open house from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., followed by a presentation of the first phase feasibility study and finally an open question and answer forum.

"What we want to do is build awareness; first of all, of the fact that this is not just a hockey arena. We’re really, truly looking to position this as a multi-purpose event centre, something that is more suited (bigger events)," Commisso said during an hour-long meeting with Dougall Media’s editorial board.

"Granted, there’s going to be a facility sporting component, but we’re looking to create something that’s different than what we have. So it’s not the Gardens again. I think what we sense is there are enough people out there that are on the fence, or maybe on either side, and we want to open up that forum."

The Gardens was built in 1951, and has seen its seating capacity for hockey dwindle to the 3,300-seat range, plus standing room capacity that allows an additional 400 patrons to watch.

Should council decide not to proceed, the 59-year-old rink could continue to the serve the city for years to come, said Community Services manager Greg Alexander.

"As an arena, it could go for another 20 to 30 years," he said. "But the condition of Fort William Gardens isn’t the issue. It’s what it can do for the community."

Alexander added Sault Ste. Marie officials got something unexpected when they built their new arena-only complex.

"It’s the pride the people have the facility, they weren’t expecting that," he said, adding a multi-purpose facility would allow for conventions and a host of other events that currently pass the city by, including concerts, rodeos and trade shows.

The city, which last investigated a new arena complex about two decades ago, has looked at a number of facilities in similar-sized cities across Canada, including the Essar Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, built in 2006 for $25 million and the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, opened last year at a cost of $66 million.

Commisso said ideally he’d like to see something along the lines of General Motors Centre in Oshawa, built six years ago for $45 million, with a capacity to seat 5,400 for hockey with room for an extra 1,000 for concerts. He also likes what he sees in Duluth, a 6,800-seat facility that opened in 2010.

Given the economy and the staggering deficits being run up by the provincial and federal governments, Commisso admitted the other two-thirds of the funding might not be immediately available from other levels of government, but said it’s best to have one’s homework done ahead of time.

That includes public input, he said.

"This is one of those areas where it’s a project that you do once in a lifetime. If we’re serious about it, we have to understand the public’s needs," Commisso said.

"There’s no hidden agenda here. We’re going to go through a process that’s open and transparent."

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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