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Current council could still find way forward on indoor turf: Mauro

Mayor Bill Mauro expects Thunder Bay's city council to debate the merits of private sector proposals for an indoor turf facility "in short order."
Bill Mauro
Mayor Bill Mauro expects the current city council will have an opportunity to vote on a recommendation on next steps on a proposed multi-use indoor turf complex. (File photo)

THUNDER BAY – The clock is ticking on the current term of Thunder Bay's city council, but there’s still a chance the body will settle on a plan for a proposed indoor turf centre before the Oct. 24 municipal election, says Mayor Bill Mauro.

The mayor, who has championed the project, expects council will soon debate the merits of five expressions of interest in building the facility solicited from the private sector last year.

Those proposals were put on ice until the city received word on an application for $22 million in federal funding to support one possible design for the turf centre, which would offer a year-round venue for soccer, ultimate frisbee, cricket, lacrosse, and other sports.

The city announced Tuesday that application to Infrastructure Canada's Green and Inclusive Community Buildings (GICB) program was not approved.

“I’m not especially surprised we weren’t successful," Mauro said in an interview. "I’m not certain strategically that making a $22 million application was the right thing to do.”

City manager Norm Gale said Tuesday administration would bring forward an update to council, along with a recommendation on next steps, but declined to confirm details around timing (the next council meeting is set for June 20).

Mauro said he’d asked Gale to ensure that the process moves as quickly as possible.

“It should not take a long time, because we should have been prepared,” he said. “So we should be able to see a report in short order, and we should have an opportunity to deliberate on those expressions of interest.”

The city received five eligible responses to its expression of interest (EOI) process last year.

Two of the proposals were for short-term solutions like a soccer bubble, while three were for permanent facilities. The city previously declined to say if any proposals were withdrawn due to the delay over GICB funding.

The submissions could suggest locations other than Chapples Park, where plans have so far centred, and could include proposals to operate the facility through a public-private partnership.

City council launched the EOI process hoping to find a cheaper alternative after narrowly rejecting a $39 million tender last year, with councillors citing concerns about mounting costs and the financial impact of COVID-19.       

Mauro said he’s unsure whether the EOI responses will offer a path forward. While council was briefed on the submissions behind closed doors, the mayor suggested he had not yet reviewed them in detail.

“They may come close to meeting what we were doing, they may not even be close to meeting what we were contemplating, but I don’t know that yet,” he said.

If the current council isn’t able to come to a decision on the project, it could become a municipal election issue, he said.

The push for the indoor turf complex has many supporters in the community, Mauro said. While he conceded there are also plenty of opponents, he reiterated his own belief it’s an important project that would bring major benefits.

Aside from recreation opportunities, Mauro said adding a premier indoor turf facility would help attract and retain young professionals and families to Thunder Bay.

He also called it a “common sense” question of fairness, given the city’s existing investments in hockey.

“Why would we think when we can have hockey rinks operating in the summer, we wouldn’t have accommodation for other sports to be played indoor throughout a long winter season?” he asked. “I think it’s an amenity that’s important in the community, for a lot of different reasons.”

Ian Kaufman

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