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Feds reject city’s latest event centre funding bid

The federal government has formally informed the city it will not fund any portion of the proposed $119-million Thunder Bay Event and Convention Centre. A letter from Minister of Infastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi, obtained by tbnewswatch.
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Event Centre concept drawings handed out to media during the public consultations for a proposed event centre in the north downtown core. (Media handout)

The federal government has formally informed the city it will not fund any portion of the proposed $119-million Thunder Bay Event and Convention Centre. 

A letter from Minister of Infastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi, obtained by tbnewswatch.com and addressed to Mayor Keith Hobbs and intergovernmental affairs committee chair Coun. Joe Virdiramo, declared the city’s event centre proposal does not meet any existing federal infrastructure programs.

“While amateur sports facilities are eligible under the Gas Tax Fund and the newly-added Recreation category of the New Building Canada Fund – National and Regional Projects, facilities for professional sports teams are not,” Sohi’s letter reads.

“Professional sports are first and foremost the responsibility of the private sector, which is why our suite of infrastructure programs does not allow for funding of facilities that will house professional or semi-professional athletes.”

The latter segment of Sohi’s quote reads word-for-word identically to a letter the city received on Mar. 28 signed by Conservative Denis Lebel, who was then Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs.

That letter prompted the city to announce it had discontinued pursuing the event centre.

Sohi’s letter is a response to council's revived lobbying efforts to the new Liberal government.

Thunder Bay-Rainy River Liberal MP Don Rusnak added while the prospective centre’s anchor tenant, the Lakehead Thunderwolves hockey club, is not a semi-professional team, Canada’s commitment to fund community arenas doesn’t extend to projects of the event centre’s scope. 

“It’s more about the design of the facility,” Rusnak said.

“The facility is designed to house a semi-professional or professional team. Despite the Thunderwolves not being a professional team, it’s obviously a building that is designed for a professional team.”

Rusnak reinforced his willingness to work with the city within the parameters of existing infrastructure programs, including exploring the possibility of recruiting private capital. 

“We can look at other possible scenarios, possibly bringing the private sector on board where we can fund either a convention centre portion of the project or some other infrastructure that fits a particular program that we have right now,” he said.

'Other proposals'

Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu stressed her government’s support for the city, despite the event centre proposal dismissal. She expressed willingness to explore other local infrastructure options.

“From the perspective I have and the communication I have, clearly the event centre at this time does not fit the infrastructure categories that we’ve been very clear about,” she said.

“There are a number of other needs the city has indicated to me over time. We can look at other proposals, we can work with the City of Thunder Bay to make sure those needs are addressed.”

Hajdu committed to strengthening communication between the federal, provincial and municipal governments on spending priorities as she suggested expanding the scope of local involvement in infrastructure planning. 

“I think the city of Thunder Bay is an organization. It’s representative of a number of councilors and the federal government works with cities and municipalities as a whole,” she said.

“All elected officials are important stakeholders but from my perspective, the relationship of the federal government is with the City of Thunder Bay and with the Province of Ontario. It’s not individual councilors but it’s really the whole city.”    

Neither Virdiramo nor city administration were available for comment.