More than two decades ago Ray Smith successfully helped fight to keep Fort William Gardens from the wrecking ball.
These days the head of Concerned Taxpayers of Thunder Bay is fighting to ensure the public has its proper say before talk of a new event centre proceeds any further. Smith, who says he’s not against a scaled-down version of the $106.1-million proposal, says a plebiscite is a must on both the decision to proceed but also the location.
On March 11 Smith plans to host a plebiscite open house at the Mary J.L. Black Library, giving the public the opportunity to speak their mind about the project.
“The public hasn’t had their say yet, despite some of the things you may have read in the newspaper,” Smith said Wednesday afternoon.
“The public is clamouring to have their voice heard.”
A plebiscite is the only fair way to determine what the city should do said Smith, who also led protests against recent multi-million-dollar improvements made to Marina Park.
“It’s long overdue and the costs since we first started talking about (a new arena) have climbed from about $50 million to about $106 million. And the site the city has chosen is certainly not the site that the majority of taxpayers prefer,” he said.
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Smith cited a number of unscientific media polls, including several conducted by tbnewswatch.com, as proof the community favours Innova Park over a downtown location.
Asked if it wasn’t the job of politicians to make these type of decisions, Smith said not in all cases.
“Not when the price balloons from $50 million to $106 million,” he said. “Not when the public is so against what they’re doing. And it’s quite obvious.”
Henry Wojak, another outspoken opponent of tax-dollar waste, said contrary to what council told the public two years ago, Fort William Gardens is not 10 years past its life expectancy and does not need immediate replacement.
It’s quite structurally adequate, Wojak said, quoting statements made recently by city-hired consultants.
“I would like to see direct democracy in action where the people have a say in a plebiscite on a ballot. The elected officials we have in place show total disregard for the public once they have gotten into office,” Wojak said.
“I would like to see if we can rally the public at that meeting to see if they will come and bang pots and pans in front of city hall on March 24 so that this mayor and council will hear the people and put a plebiscite on the ballot.”
At-large Coun. Iain Angus, already on record as saying he won’t back a plebiscite, said he’s heard the call from some taxpayers to put needs ahead of wants.
Angus thinks the city can do both.
“They have every right to that opinion to pursue those view and to try to convince the council of the day not to move forward to it. But at the same time we have others who are saying we need this kind of investment. We need to find a proper replacement for the Fort William Gardens,” Angus said.
A new centre would provide opportunities for larger meetings and conventions for the city and a place to showcase the city’s hockey talent.
A group headed by Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment has said it will consider moving the NHL Jets’ American Hockey League farm team to Thunder Bay should the facility move forward.
Angus points to the controversy surrounding waterfront development.
“You go down there last weekend and the place was jam-packed,” he said.
“Our role as members of council is to take the long-term look, to have the vision and to say what does this community need? And yes there is a difference between needs and wants, but we can’t just be a community that plows the snow and cuts the grass. We’ve got to be a community that has arts, has culture, has entertainment – things for people to do and things that will attract new people into Thunder Bay.
The March 11 meeting is scheduled to start at 5 p.m. and will include about two hours set aside for public comment.