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Conservatory's fate likely to be decided in summer

With services review looming, councillors defer decisions on upgrades until July
Thunder Bay's conservatory and production greenhouses (seen here) may be upgraded or closed altogether, as city council deferred decisions to the summer. (File photo)

THUNDER BAY – Decisions on renewing Thunder Bay’s conservatory and greenhouse facilities will wait until at least July, after city council deferred the issue Monday night. That came after council received a report from city administration outlining potential investments in the aging facilities totalling between $4 and $5 million.

Most of those investments, which include replacing the city’s production greenhouses and undertaking major renovations to the conservatory, were not up for debate Monday, though they were discussed by councillors. The only recommendation for immediate action was a $75,000 investment in a new cold-frame greenhouse, expected to pay for itself through cost savings within a year.

However, council was hesitant to go forward with even that comparatively modest investment, given the uncertain future of the conservatory site. The conservatory and greenhouses are among a number of areas of city operations being examined in the city’s core services review conducted by Grant Thornton, with a report expected in late June. An interim report in December recommended the city consider closing the facility altogether.

Given that uncertainty, some councillors were concerned about making any additional investments in the site in the meantime.

“It’s a five million dollar commitment that starts with a $75,000 ask,” said Coun. Mark Bentz. “If council were to decide that they didn’t want to be in the flower-growing business, or even if they didn’t want a conservatory... I’m not suggesting any of that, but those decisions haven’t been made.”

The cold-frame greenhouse, along with the larger production greenhouse, provide plants for city parks as well as the adjacent conservatory. The new cold-frame greenhouse was proposed as part of a plan for the city to begin growing its own native plants for low-impact developments (LIDs), a key part of the city’s storm water management plan.

The city had estimated bringing that specialized work in-house, rather than paying contractors to provide the plants, could save around $30,000 per LID. On Monday, Director of Operations and Engineering Kayla Dixon told council the city is planning to expand the LID program, aiming to install up to 11 per year.

The cold-frame greenhouse would need to be built before next winter in order to be ready for service in 2021. Parks manager Cory Halvorsen told council delaying approval until July would make timelines tight to put out requests to contractors and complete it in time, but that it was likely doable.

Councillor Andrew Foulds urged his colleages to support the funds for the cold-frame greenhouse, pointed out the $75,000 would have been funded through a carry-forward budget within the LID program, and would save the city money.

“So we’re using carry-forward money we’ve got in the bank, we’re building something we need, and we’ll save that money in the first year – that’s our decision tonight,” he said.

Most councillors voted to defer the decision until July.

On the larger question of reinvesting in the conservatory and greenhouses, some councillors raised concerns over the multi-million dollar price tag. The city report estimates total costs could range between $4.2 and $4.9 million, but generate over $220,000 in annual savings and improving the public utility of the conservatory.

Coun. Bentz said it may be time to undertake more public consultation to determine where the facility stands in terms of the city’s infrastructure priorities.

With the deferral, those questions will wait – likely until the first week of July, with the services review report expected at the end of June.