THUNDER BAY – Efforts to save Thunder Bay’s botanical conservatory, aging and recommended for closure in a recent services review, got a major boost from city council Monday.
Councillors voted unanimously to allocate nearly $2 million for upgrades to the adjacent production greenhouses that support the conservatory, as well as supplying plants for city parks and flower beds.
The improvements are considered necessary before renewal of the conservatory could proceed, and are expected to generate up to $120,000 in annual savings by adding room to grow plants for the city's Low Impact Developments (LIDs) in-house, as well as around $36,000 in yearly energy savings.
Several councillors argued Monday’s decision effectively committed council to the even larger investment to renew the conservatory, estimated to cost another $2.6 to $3.1 million.
“You aren’t just going to fix up the greenhouses and leave everything else,” said Coun. Rebecca Johnson. “That makes no sense to me at all. If we pass this, we’re going to have a conservatory.”
“We know we’re going to be committed to up to $5 million,” Coun. Aldo Ruberto agreed, referring to the full cost for improvements to the greenhouses and conservatory. ‘I think the majority on council supports that.”
Mayor Bill Mauro concurred, saying he perceived “broad-based support” for the facility around the council table.
The motion passed by council on Monday directed city administration to return with a more detailed report outlining renewal options for the conservatory, a process expected to take several months.
The $2.6 to $3.1 million estimate for conservatory renewal includes re-opening side wings long closed over structural issues, replacing glass panels and an outdated boiler – changes that could generate up to $100,000 in annual savings, largely through increased energy efficiency.
A report from parks manager Cory Halvorsen suggests adding new attractions to draw more public interest, such as a coffee bar, events room, and educational programming. The report is based on public consultations and the work of city staff, but does not address the program and services review recommendation to close the facilities.
The greenhouses – two permanent structures and one seasonal cold-frame greenhouse – are in an advanced state of disrepair, city administration reported, saying snow buildup could make the aging facilities unsafe for staff to enter this winter.
Council gave the go-ahead Monday to develop tender documents for a new 9,600 square foot greenhouse to replace the two permanent structures, at an estimated cost of $1.6 to $1.8 million.
Administration will be tasked with finding room for that investment in its draft budget for 2021. City manager Norm Gale told councillors they would look to do so while holding to a two per cent tax levy increase, a target imposed by council in August.
Coun. Mark Bentz suggested that would simply result in delaying $1.8 million in other needed capital investments, an outcome Gale agreed was likely.
The situation reinforced the need for the city to tackle its growing infrastructure deficit, Bentz said, referring to estimates the city is falling short on the investments needed to properly maintain existing infrastructure at a rate of over $20 million each year.
Council allocated $130,000 toward the costs of renewing the conservatory in 2021, an amendment put forward by Coun. Shelby Ch'ng and carried on an 8-5 vote. The funds will come from unallocated Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) reserves.
Monday's motion will also see the city proceed with replacing the seasonal cold-frame greenhouse at a cost of $75,000, drawn from existing capital funds in the city’s Low-Impact Development program carried over from previous years.
A program and services review completed by consultants Grant Thornton earlier this year recommended closing the conservatory and greenhouses, estimating annual savings of $230,000 per year, as well as one-time savings of $2.1 to $3 million in avoided capital renewal.
Reports from city administration have differed from that assessment, pointing to significant cost savings from maintaining and renewing the facilities and high public approval for the conservatory.
Halvorsen's report indicated the city could save more than $5.2 million over the 30-year lifespan of the new greenhouses compared to the costs of purchasing plants and contracting planting services through the private sector, an option several councillors have inquired about.
Purchasing the specialized native plants from contractors currently costs the city up to $30,000 per development. LIDs are designed to help avert flooding and reduce pollutants in run-off.
Council is unlikely to see the report on renewal options for the conservatory for several months. Halvorsen indicated it was likely to come back after the city’s 2021 budget process, which is scheduled to conclude in February.