THUNDER BAY – The renewal of Thunder Bay’s Centennial Botanical Conservatory has received a shot in the arm, with the announcement of $1.7 million in funding from the federal government.
The funds, announced by Thunder Bay–Rainy River MP Marcus Powlowski on Wednesday to a small group of politicians and supporters at the conservatory, come through the Heritage Ministry's Canada Cultural Spaces Fund.
"I'm really happy to be making this announcement so this place can be around for future generations," he said. "Especially at this time of year... you walk through those doors and you're in the tropics, and suddenly the cold, the snow, and a lot of your troubles seem to disappear."
Powlowski, whose riding includes the facility, said it would have been a blow to the community if the aging facility was not renewed.
It’s the latest good news for the city as it tackles well over $7 million in work to revamp both the conservatory, with its tropical plant displays, and the adjacent production greenhouses, which supply city parks and gardens, as well as the conservatory itself.
Another $2 million in outside funding was confirmed in January via the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC).
The city itself had already set aside about $3.2 million of its own.
It's a turnaround in fortunes for the facility, opened in 1967, which as recently as 2020 was on the city’s chopping block after consultants identified it for potential closure during a municipal service review.
City council had expressed little appetite for that recommendation, with councillors citing strong community support and benefits for tourism and residents' mental health.
Instead, council approved a vision to renew the facility that will include replacing its glazing and aging boiler, reopening long-shuttered side wings, converting the East Wing into a multi-purpose events room, and improving accessibility.
The estimated cost of the project, including replacement of the greenhouses, has risen from below $5 million in fall 2020 to roughly $7.5 to $8 million.
The federal support "pushed [the city] over the top" in securing adequate funds, said Mayor Bill Mauro.
"I'm really happy [city council] has committed to this facility," he said. "I think we all see it as an asset. It's unique, it's a centennial project - there's a history and a legacy here."
The upgrades will transform the experience for conservatory visitors when they're completed in 2023 or 2024, said city parks manager Cory Halvorsen.
"Having the facility fully open will provide significantly more opportunity for programming, activities, and events," he said. "[It] will be a huge improvement... It will very much feel like a new facility when we're finished."
The renovations are also expected to bring substantial energy savings upwards of $100,000 a year, and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The city plans to move forward with detailed design work in 2022, which will provide final cost estimates. Construction is planned for 2023, and could run into 2024, said Halvorsen.
The city had also applied for funding through the federal Green and Inclusive Community Buildings fund.
Council awarded a $4.8 million tender in January for the replacement of the adjacent production greenhouses and construction of a new annex connecting to the conservatory.
The new greenhouse will have a similar footprint to the three structures it’s replacing, which are at end of life, but will expand planting capacity through efficiencies.