THUNDER BAY – A long-awaited report on the future of the Thunder Bay Conservatory will come before city council Monday evening. The report suggests millions in repairs and replacements are needed for both the conservatory and adjacent production greenhouses, while predicting those investments will pay off through significant cost savings, as well as benefits to the public.
In addition to updating the aging facilities, the report suggests council consider adding new attractions to draw more public interest, including a coffee bar, events room, and educational programming.
The production greenhouses, which supply plants to city parks as well as the conservatory, are in an “advanced state of disrepair” and must be replaced entirely, the report says. That would come at an estimated cost of $1.6 to $1.8 million for a new structure with an expected life span of around 30 years.
Retrofitting the conservatory, which would include replacing glass and re-opening side wings that have been closed for years due to structural issues, is significantly more expensive. The report pegs the total cost at $2.6 to $3.1 million, while noting the work could be phased over time.
The investments, while significant, would also generate significant savings for the city, according to the report. The new, slightly larger greenhouse structure would allow the city to grow its own native plants for its Low-Impact Developments, which help avert flooding and reduce runoff and pollutants. Bringing that specialized work in-house would save about $120,000 per year, the report says.
The new buildings would also provide annual savings of about $80,000 through greater energy efficiency, $12,000 by avoiding overtime costs thanks to new automated systems, and $10,000 that the city currently spends on an annual basis for boiler maintenance and glass replacement.
All told, those savings rack up to just over $220,000 a year. That doesn’t account for any revenue the city could take in from space rental by adding a coffee bar and converting a side wing to an events room at the conservatory.
A consultant hired to assess options to renew the conservatory found three priorities expected to provide the most benefit: a multi-use room that could be booked for public events, offering educational programming, and a coffee bar.
City parks manager Cory Halvorsen says he expects the multi-use room would be used for small weddings, meetings, and as a venue for educational workshops and other conservatory events.
And while “all options are on the table,” he says the coffee bar “may be very simple, as opposed to a large area with seating.”
Councillor Shelby Ch’ng, whose Northwood ward includes the conservatory, says the investments are needed for a facility that hasn’t seen major capital upgrades since it opened in 1967. She believes the report lays out a business case that justifies the investments.
“The conservatory has outlived its life expectancy, and it needs to have a major upgrade if we’re going to keep investing and have the things we need in the community,” she says.
While she won’t be present for Monday’s meeting, she hopes her fellow councillors will see the value in reinvesting in the facility.
But council may take some time to come to a final decision on the options presented in the report. Halvorsen says the report avoids making outright recommendations on the major investments in the production greenhouses and conservatory, since those facilities are also being assessed as part of the city’s ongoing core services review.
“That process hasn’t concluded yet, so we felt it was a little bit presumptuous to make a formal recommendation to act with it still pending,” he explains.
The options for renewal presented in the report came as welcome news for the Friends of the Conservatory, a group of volunteers who have supported the facility for years, by promoting it to the public, running events, and advocated for continued funding at city hall.
“On the whole, this is exactly what we want to see happening with the Conservatory,” says board member Sharon Sidlar. “The report really covers so many areas and looks to the future for what is needed.”
She says while council has considered specific upgrades the facility, as well as debating closing it altogether, in the past, this is the first time a cohesive plan has been presented to renew the facility through physical upgrades and increasing public interest.
“Having a whole business plan come together and look at everything not in bits and pieces, but as a whole – it’s really valuable,” she says. “It seems like we’ve talked in the past about things like getting the boiler replaced or getting glazing redone – I think looking at an overall business plan makes it easier to see the big picture.”