Give Keith Hobbs credit.
Thunder Bay’s mayor on Tuesday waded into an unfriendly crowd of event-centre opponents demanding council put the question of whether to proceed or not on the Oct. 27 municipal ballot.
Hobbs had few friends in the boisterous, mostly 50-plus crowd of about 100, who spilled out a large meeting room at the Mary J.L. Black Library, worried about escalating taxes and concerned about the choice of a downtown north core location favoured by council and city administration.
Jim McConnell said forget about location and told the audience to concentrate on stopping the estimated $106.1-million project dead in its tracks.
“Don’t get sucked into that,” he said.
“What you want to do is just (ask) yes or no on the whole thing. Do you want a convention centre or don’t you. Yes or no? That ends it or that starts it. Then the next question, if you say yes, then you go and decide where.”
One attendee, Terry Ciccarelli, said he fears it’s already a done deal and blamed administration for having an agenda all its own.
“The only way we’re going to compete with this is to start doing what the young people do who want this and start crowd-sourcing,” he said.
“I would suggest, that since there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the city to hold a plebiscite ... we could have posted on the (Concerned Taxpayers of Thunder Bay) web site a petition.”
CTTB's Ray Smith, a vocal opponent of the downtown location, organized the grassroots meeting, an attempt to urge council to vote to put it to a public vote whether to proceed any further.
Council last month announced it was ready to proceed with the $1.5 million Phase 3 study that would answer questions such as funding and produce a business plan.
Smith said it’s just not the right time to be considering burdening taxpayers with such a large project, with other infrastructure issues at hand.
He added it’s too big a project not to involve the public in a meaningful way. The city has held public open houses on the project, but that’s not the same as a vote, Smith said.
“We the taxpayer have had nothing,” he said. “We’ve been shut out. All we want is a vote on Oct. 27.”
Thirty-something Terry Lemieux said he represents the younger members of the community, a group he doesn’t think can afford to pay for a new event centre.
“We’re new homeowners. Our taxes keep skyrocketing. Water keeps going up. Hydro keeps going up. My wages aren’t going up at all. I can’t afford to go to anything that comes to the Community Auditorium right now. It’s too expensive. If it’s over $60 a ticket, say, I’m out. How are we going to pay for these tickets?” Lemieux said, referencing the city’s letter of intent reached with Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment and Thunder Bay Live that could see the NHL Jets’ American Hockey League franchise transfer to Thunder Bay if a new arena is built.
Hobbs, who sat in the hostile crowd for about 90 minutes, along with several council hopefuls and Coun. Joe Virdiramo, reiterated a stance he’s held for some time – that it’s too early to consider taking the project to a public vote.
“We have a feasibility study to do. We have a business plan to do. We have a parking study to do. We have to find out how much this is going to cost. It could come in under $106 million. And we’re looking at lowering that cost for sure,” Hobbs said.
The mayor admitted there’s a lot of misinformation floating around about the project, including it being tied to the waterfront hotel deal.
“I heard a lot of fear mongering just on the taxes,” he said, boasting that council kept the tax increase to 1.69 per cent.
For a plebiscite to be held in conjunction with the upcoming municipal election council would have to pass a bylaw by the end of April.
The question must be a yes or no answer. A standalone question could be asked down the road, at a cost between $200,000 and $300,000.
Hobbs said he is in favour of a scientific survey of 1,000 or more people at the appropriate time.
Concerned Taxpayers of Thunder Bay plan to hold a second open house on April 1 at the Da Vinci Centre.