THUNDER BAY — Thunder Bay’s city council has bet on the benefits of a significant revamp of the city’s north core, rebuilding a key stretch of Red River Road with more space for pedestrians, markets, events, and greenery, and new approaches including a curbless street.
Councillors expressed optimism the project would further invigorate the downtown, building on the arrival of new businesses, waterfront development, and cruise ship visits, calling it an investment that will bear fruit over generations.
On Monday, council unanimously approved a $13.2 million contract with Nadin Contracting to complete the work on Red River Road and Court Street over the coming two years.
That figure has risen consistently from previous city estimates.
Three north ward councillors had acknowledged the rising costs in interviews with TBnewswatch last week, with two expressing concern the increase could threaten council support.
On Monday, however, councillors downplayed the increase, with some suggesting it was more media narrative than reality.
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng argued some residents "were very misled" by TBnewswatch reporting citing the full $13.2 million value of the Nadin contract, when the city will bear only $11.9 million of that cost after an HST rebate, comparing that to an $11 million estimate provided in January.
The project is estimated to cost the city $12.6 million after factoring in additional consulting and engineering costs and a $750,000 contingency amount, however.
Around $2 million of that will cover replacement of underground infrastructure, with the rest to rebuild the street and add what staff have called “premium finishes.”
The city budgeted just over $8 million for the project in 2023, and hopes to cover $3 million of the project’s cost through applications to the NOHFC and FedNor, with answers expected in June.
If the funding does not come through, the city will defer other infrastructure work to compensate, including storm sewer lining, repaving Memorial Avenue from Central Avenue to the Harbour Expressway, and a traffic signal replacement at Memorial and Harbour.
Staff said an initial $8 million estimate for the downtown rebuild had covered replacing existing infrastructure, and had risen to accommodate the more ambitious redesign.
The rebuild will feature lockstone-style pavers, a curbless street on Red River that can be fully or partially closed for markets and events, and more benches, greenery, and public art.
Kayla Dixon, the city’s director of engineering and operations, said that more expensive design responded directly to clear feedback from the public and the area business community.
“This project is the result of two years of consultation with the community on what they want their downtown to be — a safer, pedestrian-friendly place where they can enjoy food and beverage outside, businesses can spill out into the public right-of-way, families can come to enjoy street fairs and events, and where visitors and cruise ship passengers want to spend time, and therefore spend money.”
Two other bids for the contract, submitted by Makkinga Contractors and LH North, each came in more than $3 million above Nadin’s.
Noting the project is driven by the need to replace roughly century-old water and sewer infrastructure in the area, Dixon said the city “will not get another chance like this for another 100 years.”
Put in that perspective, councillors argued the higher cost to scale up the rebuild were of little concern.
“It’s amazing that it’s come in that low, and I think we need to think of that,” said Coun. Andrew Foulds, pointing to significant inflation in the construction sector.
“Cities around the world are building like this, and downtowns are no longer concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads. They’re much richer than that.”
The Waterfront District BIA made a similar case in a deputation to council, saying the city would benefit from investing in the downtown, noting its members have done the same by opening new storefronts even during the pandemic.
“We’re very sensitive to the situation the city is in … in trying to rein in spending, and this will of course be a major expenditure,” said vice-chair Peter White. “It’s not the time to shy away from a significant expenditure of this nature… in order to save a few dollars. This is something that is going to be remembered for years and years.”
“This isn’t something that is going to be done from facade to facade again in most of our lifetimes, so it’s very important that this be done right.”
Coun. Brian Hamilton said he hoped the rebuild would not only boost area businesses, but encourage the development of more housing on second levels, some of which are currently sitting vacant.
Some councillors questioned how the new street design would impact operating costs.
Dixon said the city has already planned for increased staffing equivalent to one full-time position to maintain the area properly, and will take measures including using plastic blades for snowplowing and applying sand, not salt.
The staffing increase will be split between the roads and parks divisions, with over 40 planters and deeper granite tree pits included in the redesign.
Construction is expected to begin on Court Street in May, proceeding from the intersection at Lincoln Street where underground replacements left off last year.
The bulk of work on Red River Road is expected to occur in 2024, but could begin this year depending on Nadin’s progress.