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Council delays decision on tennis bubble

Councillors seek more information on how disagreement over bubble location could impact Thunder Bay Community Tennis Centre.

THUNDER BAY – A decision on where to place a proposed six-court tennis bubble within Chapples Park will wait until May, after Thunder Bay’s city council considered the issue Monday.

Mayor Bill Mauro argued council needed more information on how a location suggested by administration – but opposed by the Thunder Bay Community Tennis Centre – would impact the club.

The delay puts additional pressure on the tennis centre as it races to meet funding deadlines for completion of the project, the first of which falls in November of this year.

Mauro expressed sympathy over those pressures, but said council needed more information before deciding between competing visions for the location of the indoor tennis centre.

"Where I’m landing on this is, I don’t think it’s going to get built in time for this season anyway, unfortunately," he said.

Specifically, Mauro asked for more details on the tennis centre's concerns that administration's suggested location, across a roadway to the south, would result in higher operating costs, including potentially having to hire more staff to supervise the facilities.

The tennis centre has also raised safety concerns that players including children would be required to cross the roadway, and suggested development costs would be higher since the area is further from service connections.

In a report, city administration suggested the club’s preferred location, directly to the northwest of its existing outdoor courts, would conflict with plans for the city’s proposed indoor turf centre, which is envisioned in the same area.

The 45-foot-high bubble would disrupt the way the turf centre integrates with surrounding sports fields and an adjacent toboggan hill, and block views of Mount McKay, general manager of community services Kelly Robertson told councillors.

“One of the design principles was the integration of that facility with the sliding hill, with the fields surrounding [it] – the pavilion-in-the-park kind of concept,” she said.

“The concerns we’ve shared with the tennis centre in the past [are] that the park users will consider it to be quite obtrusive as they’re approaching the proposed indoor [turf] facility, blocking the view, in particular the view of Mount McKay, from the perspective of the multi-use indoor turf facility.”

Several councillors questioned just how serious those objections were on Monday.

“Maybe I’m not getting it, but [one of] the two main arguments against Option 1 was that it would potentially block the view of a future indoor facility,” said Coun. Andrew Foulds. “I don’t mean to be facetious here, but I think people who go to an indoor turf facility go to play something – I’m not sure they’re going for a view.”

The aesthetics were a major driver of administration’s concerns, said landscape architect Werner Schwar, who said the bubble would come within about 20 metres of the indoor turf centre in the tennis centre’s preferred location.

He also noted the centre’s proposal would require a popular toboggan hill in that spot to be relocated. The tennis centre suggested it could be moved to the location administration suggests for the bubble at a cost of $250,000.

Several councillors noted the indoor turf project’s uncertain future at Chapples, with Mayor Bill Mauro acknowledging it may not go forward at all.

“We don’t know if we’re ever going to build an indoor turf facility,” he said. “And of course, if there’s not one there, then I would suggest the concerns from administration are not as relevant.”

Mauro moved to refer the issue back to administration, calling for more information on the costs the tennis centre would bear if forced to take up the suggested location to the south, across the road running through Chapples Park.

Coun. Shelby Ch’ng was among three councillors opposing that motion, saying she was skeptical they’d get much more insight in a month.

“I would like more information, but I also don’t want to put the tennis community at risk of losing their funding because we didn’t feel like we could make a decision,” she said.

The tennis centre is working towards a completion date of Nov. 30 for $1 million it received in NOHFC funding. Along with a $1.5 million commitment from the city and $500,000 from FedNor, the centre is close to reaching its fundraising goals.

It has also applied to Tennis Canada for a $200,000 capital grant and plans to raise additional funds from members and the community.

The group may have to seek an extension from NOHFC, it told council.

The tennis centre estimates the bubble will cost $3,675,750 at its preferred location. The facility would include an office and accessible washroom/changeroom area.

Some councillors questioned the wisdom of moving ahead with an air-supported design.

“I’m glad you’re going forward, I just want to see the best possible product,” said Coun. Aldo Ruberto, suggesting other structures should be investigated. “The possibility of this structure collapsing… there’s a whole bunch of issues that are there.”

Equalized energy costs are three times as high for air-supported versus hard frame structures, Broere told councillors.

However, tennis centre vice-president Pasi Pinta said the choice was a matter of cost, delivering indoor recreation opportunities for a fraction of the up-front investment.

The tennis community, without an indoor venue since the Confederation College bubble closed in 2018, had hoped the city would include courts in its indoor turf design, but council voted against that option in 2019, instead allocating $1.5 million to help the centre pursue a future solution.

By passing Mauro's referral motion, council directed administration to return with a report by May 9.

Couns. Ch'ng, Ruberto, and You voted against the referral, with Ruberto arguing the city should simply agree to the tennis club's requested location, and Ch'ng raising concerns the club's funding could be endangered by the delay. Coun. Brian Hamilton was absent.

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