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Council adjusts course on indoor turf

City council reversed a previous vote on a proposed indoor turf facility, approving a $38-million financing plan and loosening build standards.

THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s city council has adjusted course in its pursuit of an indoor turf facility, overturning a vote held just a week ago and approving a $38-million financing plan for a proposed build adjacent to the Community Auditorium.

That move could clear the way for the city to launch a competitive bidding process in the spring, seeking proposals from the private sector to design, build, and potentially operate a complex hosting soccer, cricket, Ultimate Frisbee, and other turf sports.

The move represented a reversal after a vote last week to delay approving a $44-million financing plan and instead explore possible cuts to the project’s scope in an effort to bring base building costs down to $30 million.

The facility’s largest potential user group, Soccer Northwest Ontario, slammed that approach, warning it would result in a smaller field size - something they call a deal-breaker - and highlighting estimates from city staff that the vote would cause months of delays.

On Monday, council instead approved a motion from Coun. Trevor Giertuga to green-light a reduced $38-million financing plan, lowering the number by loosening the minimum design standards for the build.

That financing is estimated to cover a facility that is simply Ontario Building Code-compliant, meaning it would not have to meet the city’s usual design standards or the LEED Silver environmental certification council had previously endorsed.

Giertuga’s motion will, however, see staff report back on the possibility of meeting those higher standards, estimating the costs and potential energy savings involved.

Coun. Andrew Foulds called that a compromise that won him over to Giertuga’s proposal, but warned he likely wouldn’t approve a build that didn’t achieve higher environmental standards.

“I’m not sure I can see myself supporting something that isn’t net zero or close to net zero, but I could see myself supporting perhaps delaying the planting of the trees [by] a couple of years, some of the Clean, Green and Beautiful [requirements being] carved out,” he said.

City staff are directed to report back by March 25 of next year with information required to launch a bidding process for the project.

That will include the results of full geotechnical studies (initial drilling has revealed no red flags) and preliminary design requirements, as well as renewed public engagement.

Giertuga also called a new requirement for administration to review an operating business plan for the facility crucial.

Several councillors had warned relying on an earlier $44.5-million estimate for the facility presented by administration would leave the turf project dead in the water, with many on council saying they can’t support a price tag much above $30 million.

The $44.5-million figure came from a Class C estimate prepared by consultant Hanscomb Ltd. and considered accurate within 15 to 20 per cent.

It was based on the hangar-like steel-sided design proposed by Soccer Northwest Ontario a year ago, upgraded to meet city building standards and the LEED Silver environmental standard at council’s direction – a standard that still falls short of the city’s net-zero climate goals.

Giertuga’s motion passed on a 9-4 vote, with Mayor Ken Boshcoff and Couns. Aiello, Bentz, and Hamilton opposed.

Coun. Mark Bentz warned approving the financing plan of $38 million would set a course for a project that's once again too expensive to gain support around the council table.

“I just do not want to have a repeat of last term – that was the idea behind the price cap,” he said. “If this doesn’t move forward, we’re kind of in no-man’s land.”

After a deputation in which Veneziale urged council to approve a financing plan, Bentz pressed the Soccer Northwest Ontario head over his confidence the group's preferred design could be built for $30 million or less, not including site servicing costs.

“If we endorse a financing plan at $44 million and this thing comes in at $44 million, is your group willing to bridge that gap between your ‘guaranteed price’ and what the tender comes in at?” Bentz asked.

“I’d be happy to,” Veneziale responded. “I’m so confident, that I’d be happy to.”

Coun. Brian Hamilton, meanwhile, argued the city can't afford to spend $38 million on an indoor turf facility when it also faces looming costs for a proposed twinning of the Port Arthur Arena, a new police headquarters, and other upcoming infrastructure needs.

A move by Coun. Albert Aiello to cap the financing plan at $30 million was ruled out of order by city clerk Krista Power.

“When… your experts, the folks who are skilled in this work, are telling you the project could be up to $44 million… you can’t simply change the number,” she told council.

“You have to decide how you make that happen, what you change in order to get to that $30 million… Simply changing the number from $44 to $30 [million] does not make it so.”

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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