Friends of Big Thunder have a big ask ahead of them from the federal government.
Co-chairman Paul DeGiacomo on Tuesday said the organization wants Ottawa to cover the $20-million to $25-million cost to reopened the Ontario-owned Nordic ski facility, which the province closed in 1996, a year after it hosted the World Nordic Ski Championships.
The group is targeting the P3 program, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure funding to municipalities in recent years, including the federal government’s $22-million share of Thunder Bay’s waterfront development project.
It’s the same pool of money the city is hoping to tap into to help pay for a new event centre to replace Fort William Gardens.
Friends of Big Thunder’s request will be a one-time ask, DiGiacomo said, adding the long-term sustainability plan, for what they hope to turn into a year-round facility, is to build revenue-generating condominiums and a small hotel on site to house athletes and tourists.
“The P3 funding would allow us to get the doors open to start Year 1 of the current draft copy of the business case,” DiGiacomo said. “Obviously today would be a nice day for it to happen, but we have to do this in a logical approach.
“And we’re looking for help from as many people as we can. We’d like to think that this time next year we can have the locks off and start getting along with this process, if the P3 funding comes in place. We’re looking to get this nailed down as soon as possible,” he said.
Mayor Keith Hobbs said he’s fully behind the Friends of Big Thunder plan.
“I am very much in support of reopening Big Thunder and have had many discussions with Paul. If I had to prioritize, I would put the event centre first and Big Thunder second,” Hobbs said, reached via email on Tuesday, adding he’s hoping a new federal infrastructure program the feds are rumoured to be rolling out will cover the federal portion of the proposed event centre.
Thunder Bay-Atikokan Liberal MP Bill Mauro said if the feds come to the table, it would be a lot more palatable for him to fight to inject provincial dollars into the site, something he's been fighting for the better part of the last decade. He admits under any circumstance, it won't be easy.
"It's difficult to find that kind of cash," he said, reached by phone. "However, if the feds expressed an interest in being part of this, it would make it a lot easier for me to find matching funding."
Mauro said Friends of Big Thunder might want to think smaller, rather than larger, and not insist on reopening it to it's historical past uses, but instead consider walking and cross-country ski trails that wouldn't require as big an ask from various levels of government.
The ski jumps, the focal piece of the site, would not open until at least year four or five of the group’s five-year plan, DiGiacomo said.
“It’s probably the most expensive part of the five-year plan and we hope to be reopening the small jumps to start with,” he said. “The 120-metre and the 90-metre, well that’s to be determined. The details of all that have to be mapped out still and we hope to be doing that with the current plan that we have now.”
The plan was shared in January with several key stakeholders, including Fort William First Nation, the province and the communities of Thunder Bay and Neebing.
None of the stakeholders told them the plan wasn’t a feasible one, DiGiacomo said, which is why they’re still at it today.
“We’re basically trying to make this document more government-ready so we can apply for P3 (funding),” DiGiacomo said.
An email request for a response from NDP MP John Rafferty (Thunder Bay-Rainy River), was not immediately responded to on Tuesday afternoon.
The five-year plan is a staged approach, aimed at opening the cross-country trails once the gates are opened and the site put back to good repair after 16 years of neglect.
“It’s the easiest to reopen again, based on our information that we’ve received,” DiGiacomo said.
“We’re trying to run this as a 12-month operation, so the shoulder months will be a challenge, to say the least.
“Summer activities could include mountain biking or trail walking. There are a lot of sports that basically were not in place in a big way in ’96 when the place was closed that have now taken off.”
Part of the long-term plan includes spending $3 million to extend city water lines to the site, located on Little Norway Road.