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Council funds conservatory renewal, eyes outdoor improvements

An overhaul of Thunder Bay's Centennial Botanical Conservatory is now set for 2024, while the city is also considering adding new pathways, gardens, and water features surrounding the building.

THUNDER BAY — The Centennial Botanical Conservatory is set for a major overhaul next year, after city council approved millions in spending and a tentative plan to transform the area surrounding the facility with new plantings, pathways, and water features.

Council’s unanimous vote of approval on Monday sets the stage for construction to begin in the spring of 2024, after a false start this year.

The renewal will transform the experience for visitors to the conservatory’s tropical plant displays, rebuilding and reopening side wings that have been shuttered due to disrepair for over a decade.

One of those wings will be converted into a multi-use event space, while the other will house a cactus display and seating.

The conservatory renewal will transform the experience for visitors, allowing new dynamic uses of the space and opening it up to users with mobility challenges, added Cory Halvorsen, the city's manager of parks and open spaces.

“It’s a really exciting project,” he said. “I really think it’s going to look like a new facility. We’re protecting the tropical displays, we’re redoing all the glazing, all the pathways, all the entrances, and the grounds”

“The site itself will have multiple venues outdoors — outdoor gardens, waterways. So it’ll be more of an interactive space throughout, and we’ll build off of the activities coming from the facility itself.”

Coun. Andrew Foulds said the approval of conservatory funding meant a legacy attraction added to celebrate Canada’s centenary in 1967 would survive to be enjoyed by future generations.

He joined several colleagues in giving credit for that outcome to citizens who had advocated against its closure, including the Friends of the Thunder Bay Conservatory.

“It was really strong support from the community,” he said. “We unfortunately had let this project go a little bit, for years. And it was the Friends of the Conservatory that fought for it.”

The work is expected to cost $5.1 million. The city has secured nearly half that in federal and provincial funding, and has submitted further applications.

If the city goes ahead with additional outdoor improvements outlined by staff on Monday, it will bring its total spending to renew the conservatory grounds to nearly $10 million.

That accounts for the estimated $1.7 million price tag for the outdoor work, and $4.9 million the city previously committed to rebuild the production greenhouses that feed the conservatory as well as city flower beds and stormwater gardens.

The revamp will also make the conservatory much more efficient, staff noted in a report, with an estimated 76 per cent reduction in energy costs saving the city around $90,000 a year, and slashing greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90 per cent.

That’s in part thanks to a new glazing envelope that will trade in single-pane glass for insulated multi-wall acrylic panels, and a new boiler.

Staff concluded it would cost an additional $4 million to meet net zero emissions standards, recommending the city assess the move at the next capital upgrade period in 20 to 25 years, when a transition to geothermal heating could be considered.

The conservatory’s east and west wings will be fully rebuilt, after staff said it was determined costs for a new build were similar to a retrofit.

Garden doors will be added at the end of both wings to allow access to the outdoor event and garden space.

The East Wing layout will include an open concept heated slab for seasonal installations and amenities for hosting events.

The West Wing layout will include renewal of the walking paths with raised planting area edges and walls providing enhanced arid/cacti display opportunities and integrated seating locations.

Both side wings have been closed since 2012 after they failed to meet building code.

Accessibility enhancements include a level crossing over the pond in the main tropical display area, two accessible washrooms, and doorway transitions to the building’s two wings.

The conservatory renewal would be scheduled for completion in spring or summer of 2025.

On Monday, council approved a staff recommendation to allocate $2.2 million for that work from the Renew Thunder Bay fund.

The city continues to seek up to $2.7 million in additional funding for the conservatory renewal through the Canada Green and Inclusive Community Buildings Fund.

Council also tentatively allocated nearly $850,000 from the same fund towards the outdoor improvements, conditional on securing matching funds from the NOHFC.

Staff presented a vision for the area surrounding the conservatory including an accessible walkway and path network, outdoor classroom and event space, trees and garden beds, community gardens, and aquatic gardens and ponds integrated into the facility’s stormwater management system.

If the city is successful in securing NOHFC dollars, the work could begin as soon as this fall, staff said.

Staff expressed confidence the revamp would draw increased traffic to the conservatory and make it a more attractive venue for school trips and events including weddings.

Coun. Rajni Agarwal called the facelift an exciting “multi-generational project,” but sought assurances from staff those changes wouldn’t be competing with the private sector.

“When we’re looking at renting out tent space, this is going to be a beautiful area,” she said. “Are we not taking away from the private enterprise, and as a city now competing with businesses?”

“Saying, hey, come do your banquet here rather than at one of the hotels. Because this looks beautiful.”

By contrast, staff said the space would create new opportunities for local business.

“It’s not that we’re trying to create something new to compete with the private sector, it’s more to make sure we’re taking full advantage of the asset we’re renewing,” said Halvorsen. “We’re also doing that in a way that will open opportunities for local business to use those spaces — so it won’t be exclusive to city operations.”

The idea of adding a coffee bar at the conservatory was dropped “as it would likely result in loss of display area and existing functionality of the space and walkways,” staff reported, adding the outdoor space would allow opportunities for vendors instead.

Ian Kaufman

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