THUNDER BAY – The iconic but aging Fort William Gardens looks set to remain a fixture in Thunder Bay’s south end for the foreseeable future.
City council adopted a long-term investment plan for the facility Monday calling for $3 million in upgrades to the Gardens over four years, expected to extend its lifespan for at least 15 years.
The city hopes to secure nearly three-quarters of that through the federal Green and Inclusive Community Building Program (GICB).
The motion passed unanimously Monday also adds $400,000 to the city’s annual capital budget for recreational facilities.
That sum will be used to shore up other venues like arenas and pools if the city secures the GICB funding. If not, the funds will be diverted to the Fort William Gardens for four years, along with existing funding, to support the investment plan.
The decision represented a de facto acknowledgement that plans to replace the Gardens remain distant.
Director of asset management Gerry Broere told councillors if the city were planning for a replacement in the near-term, some of the planned improvements to the Fort William Gardens would be superfluous.
“If we decided tonight we were going to go down the road for a replacement, all of that money isn’t required,” said Broere. “Part of that money is to enhance the facility to attract more events.”
City manager Norm Gale said with planned energy efficiency and accessibility improvements, the Gardens would remain viable as the city develops plans to replace it by 2036. That planning will tentatively be set to begin in 2030.
“The Fort William Gardens is structurally sound,” he said. “This recommendation will allow the public to continue using it."
The city is expected to reap around $80,000 a year in energy savings, and reduce the Gardens' GHG emissions by 38 per cent.
Councillors expressed support for the outlines of the plan, but also concern over a 15-year wait for a replacement facility.
Planning to replace the 70-year-old Gardens have been underway for a decade, Mauro pointed out, before plans for a 5,000-seat event centre fell apart.
“The 15 years scares me,” agreed Coun. Albert Aiello, though Gale assured council the plan didn’t preclude developing a replacement sooner.
Mauro suggested deferring the decision until 2022 budget deliberations, when council could better balance the investment plan against other projects, like a request from the Thunder Bay Police Services Board for a $56 million new headquarters.
“If [the police station] is a go… I see no capacity for us to do both at the same time,” he said.
Coun. Mark Bentz called for public consultation before endorsing the plan.
“That’s what this is all about – what kind of facilities do you want in the city, when do you want them? Do you feel the FWG is suitable? It might be structurally sound, but it might not meet the needs of the community as they see it.”
Coun. Brian Hamilton argued the decision, involving complex considerations about other capital projects the city is balancing and its overall financial position, was ill-suited to public consultation.
“If people don’t have all the facts and they haven’t been through three long-term financial overviews, and understand the significant financial concerns we have, they might not be able to make an informed decision or [provide] commentary that’s going to inform my decision,” he said.
“If you ask people if they want chocolate cake, they’re going to say yes – they’re always going to want a bigger, better facility.”
Coun. Andrew Foulds said supporting the renewal plan was simply the responsible thing to do, given that the Gardens is expected to remain in operation for at least several years.
Coun. Aldo Ruberto sought assurances that, with the new investments, the Gardens would be able to serve as an entertainment venue as well as a sports arena, something Broere said would be possible thanks to recent additions like rigging for sound stages.
A bid to delay the decision until consultation was conducted failed on a 9-3 vote.
The main motion, adopting the long-term investment plan and adding $400,000 to the capital budget for improvements to recreation facilities, then passed unanimously.