THUNDER BAY – Multi-million dollar price tags could freeze desire to move forward with a new interim indoor turf facility until the future of the proposed nearly $30 million multi-purpose venue is determined.
Despite developing five options for a short-term sheltered winter home for field sports, city administration is recommending Thunder Bay city council hold off on going forward with an interim solution until a decision is made about the proposed Chapples Park permanent facility.
The 2016 collapse of the privately-operated Sports Dome has created a significant shortage of indoor turf hours to meet the demand. The Lakehead University Hanger and the repurposed bubble on Confederation College campus were the only two locations available for each of the last two years, though the college site will no longer be useable.
The different plans, which range in cost from $5.7 million to $8.9 million with only one projected as being plausible to be ready for this fall, were presented to council at a special non-business meeting on Tuesday night.
Each of the five options proposed by administration would have a dome installed over an artificial turf playing surface. Three of the locations are within Chapples Park, one would be situated at the site of the former Sports Dome on the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition grounds and one would use the existing artificial turf field at Fort William Stadium.
Each of those options have pros and cons, city general manager of community services Kelly Robertson told council, with four of the five options not likely to be ready until November 2020.
The Chapples Park options, which range from $7.7 million to $8.9 million, would all require the construction of a new field surface, the grade beam to support the dome and various levels of site servicing. Two of those would need a new amenity building, which would house change rooms, while the third would rely upon negotiations with Soccer Northwest to use and likely renovate their building.
While the CLE site is likely the only one that could be ready for the fall of 2019 and is the least expensive with an estimated cost of $5.7 million, the field surface would be significantly smaller than the other options and would require a lease agreement with the CLE board of directors.
The Fort William Stadium location is the only option to have a pre-existing artificial turf surface, but it would require much of the same construction and site preparation work as the Chapples Park options and has a projected price tag of $6.5 million. As well, the dome would have to be put up and taken down seasonally to accommodate other uses of the stadium.
The city had launched an expression of interest process last year, with St. Ignatius High School listed as a possible site at that time. Robertson said the five options were identified based on feedback received by council as a result of that expression of interest process.
Paying as much as nearly $9 million for an interim solution isn’t appealing to Coun. Aldo Ruberto, who admitted he wasn’t initially expecting the financial order of magnitude for the short-term fixes.
“I would rather spend $15 (million) to $20 million on a permanent solution. It makes more sense as far as I’m concerned,” Ruberto said.
“With a permanent solution, there are a lot more users that can use it. There are more things that can be done in the facility itself. It’s multi-purpose and we don’t run the risk of the building collapsing on us.”
For the last few years, the city and Soccer Northwest Ontario have been exploring a nearly $30 million permanent multi-purpose facility that would be located within Chapples Park. That project would still require external government funding, with a $2.6-million ask to the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund for site studies and detailed design advancing to the second stage.
Robertson said that permanent facility, which the previous council declared as a priority despite not committing any funding, would be three years away at the earliest.
During the budget process, council established a standalone indoor turf facility reserve fund with $4 million transferred from the Renew Thunder Bay reserve fund, along with the commitment to allocate the city’s expected $1-million share from the municipal accommodation tax in 2019.
Coun. Andrew Foulds acknowledged the public interest and public demand for a facility, but said it’s a huge decision on what could be a legacy project for the community.
“I think we need to have a vision of what we want to do. We have to make sure it meets the needs of all the stakeholders, meets the needs of this community and we have an appropriate financing plan that is reasonable, appropriate and effective,” Foulds said.
Council earlier this month heard a proposal from local developer Robert Zanette to split the estimated $2.7-million cost of repurposing the former Barewood Furniture building into an indoor turf facility, along with the construction of another domed field on the 11th Avenue property.
Robertson said the Zanette proposal has merit but would likely fall short of what the city is trying to achieve with its five options.
“My sense of the Zanette proposal is that it’s more a practice facility but it could be better than what the other options are for turf users as far as making use of school gyms,” Robertson said.
“It would not, in my opinion, address the variety of turf user needs to the extent a larger synthetic turf surface would. In my opinion, it wouldn’t accommodate a competitive level of play.”
Ruberto recognized the impact that waiting another few years could have on the sports community.
“To the groups I would say I’m sorry. We failed you in a way because we were not prepared when the dome collapsed,” Ruberto said. “In all fairness, there was no need for it. When the dome was up, had we been doing this preparation and this work ahead of time, we wouldn’t be in this position.
“We want to give the soccer community an awesome place to play. We want it to be one of the best facilities possible. I think that’s what they want. It’s going to take a little longer and they’re going to have to be patient and I’m sorry but that’s the way it works. We’re trying our best.”