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Indoor turf project remains on pause, with no answer on $22 million funding ask

City initially indicated it expected a response from feds last year; In meantime, private proposals are on hold.
indoor soccer 4
Soccer players at the Sault Ste. Marie's Northern Community Centre. Efforts to secure an indoor turf facility in Thunder Bay remain on hold pending federal funding. (Soo Today)

THUNDER BAY – The future of a proposed indoor turf sports facility remains uncertain, with the City of Thunder Bay still no closer to an answer on its request for $22 million in federal funding to help build the complex.

In a report that will be presented to city council on Monday, administration recommends continuing to hold the pause button on the project, saying the city is still waiting for a response from Infrastructure Canada, eight months after submitting a funding application and months after an answer was initially expected.

The pause leaves five expressions of interest received from the private sector last year still in flux, with the city tight-lipped on what impact the delay could have.

The city applied for up to $22.4 million from Infrastructure Canada’s Green and Inclusive Community Building program (GICB) in July of 2021, hoping to cover half the cost of a design estimated at $44.8 million.

City staff indicated last year they expected a response by the fall. Months later, there’s still no hint as to when an answer will arrive, city manager Norm Gale said Wednesday.

“I can give no indication as to a timeline,” he said. “We were hoping that we would know by January of this year. Of course, that time has passed, but we remain hopeful and we look forward to a positive announcement, hopefully.”

Asked whether the city had communicated with the feds about the delay, Gale said “there’s nothing I can comment on publicly,” but added “we’re having the conversations we need to have with Infrastructure Canada.”

Infrastructure Canada did not respond to a request for comment on this story by deadline.

In the meantime, other design and funding options the city was exploring remain on hold indefinitely.

That includes an application for $2 million from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC), which the agency agreed to put on hold as the city awaits an answer on GICB dollars. The city isn’t aware of any time limit on how long the NOHFC will continue to do so, Gale said.

Also on hold are the proposals the city solicited from the private sector last year, after city council narrowly rejected awarding a $39 million construction tender over concerns about mounting costs and the financial impact of COVID-19.

Two of the proposals are for short-term solutions like a soccer bubble, while three are for permanent facilities. All could involve locations other than Chapples Park and a variety of operating arrangements, including public-private partnerships.

Those proposals could be discarded, however, if the city receives enough GICB funding to address councillors’ cost concerns with the previous design.

Gale said Wednesday he couldn’t discuss details of the proposals, nor answer a specific question on whether any proposals had been modified or withdrawn due to the delay.

“I won’t speak to any details or issues regarding the proposals that were submitted,” he said.

An independent review found earlier this year that the city’s decision to keep the proposals under wraps while it waits was justified under provincial law.

The delay is a challenge for the city, Gale acknowledged.

“Clearly it’s time-sensitive – the earlier we know, the better,” he said. “Council has determined that they wish to proceed with some sort of project, that’s clearly iterated in their strategic plan, so it’s important to them.”

Coun. Mark Bentz called the delay “unfortunate,” saying it added to years of uncertainty on the issue.

“The community is waiting for something to happen,” he said. “It’s been one thing after another with this project.”

The city shouldn’t ask the private entities that responded to its expression of interest process to wait much longer, he said.

While the city waits, staff plan to conduct further engagement with potential user groups to “re-assess community demand for various indoor recreation activities,” and gather feedback on priorities for potential short-term solutions like a bubble.

Several other local organizations are also awaiting word on their own GICB applications.

The Thunder Bay Art Gallery applied for support with its planned new building on the waterfront, while Fort William First Nation is seeking $25 million from the fund to build a long-term care home.

Ian Kaufman

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