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Thunder Bay letter sign shelved

City council cancels funding for controversial waterfront sign, day after city's tourism head said it wasn't the right time for the project
Toronto's letter sign has proven a popular attraction.

THUNDER BAY – Plans to put a large Thunder Bay letter sign at the waterfront have been nixed, a day after the city’s tourism manager told city councillors the idea had little support from businesses in the sector.  

Several councillors said there was also clear public opposition to the project, before voting 7-6 to remove $100,000 earmarked for the sign at a final 2021 budget review meeting Tuesday.

“I’ve heard clearly in the community that they don’t want to spend $100,000 on this sign at this time,” said Coun. Trevor Giertuga. “I’ve heard [that] we should be spending it on so many other things – so many different infrastructure items that are lacking in our communities.”

Total costs for the sign were estimated at roughly $150,000, though a design had not been finalized. The city’s Clean, Green and Beautiful Committee had also offered $25,000 in support, contingent on the project finding full funding.

The idea was first put forward by the city’s 50th anniversary committee as a way to commemorate the amalgamation of Port Arthur and Fort William in 1970.

The issue has prompted hours of debate and several reversals over at least five council meetings in recent months.

Coun. Rebecca Johnson joined several colleagues in expressing frustration over that process, which involved a last-ditch re-vote Tuesday after one councillor re-joined the meeting.

“We really look [unprofessional],” she said. “I truly think we’d better take a real good look at ourselves… [It's] not good governance.”

Some councillors who voted to keep the funding were openly supportive of the sign, while others simply wanted to see firmer design and cost information before making a final decision.

Proponents have touted the success of similar signs in cities like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Hamilton, saying it could help draw cross-country travellers into the downtown and boost the city’s brand on social media.

Some who voted to pull its funding said the sign could be a good idea in the future, but couldn't be justified in a crisis. The pandemic is projected to cost the city around $7.5 million in 2021, with about half of that covered by federal and provincial relief.

“Yesterday we heard loud and clear from a professional, our head of tourism,” said Coun. Peng You. “I do hear from the general public [that] this doesn’t have to be done right away.”

Pepe had expressed similar sentiments to city council the day before, saying the sign could be valuable but shouldn't be a priority.

The city’s $100,000 contribution would have been drawn from its Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT) reserve fund, with no direct impact on the tax levy. Now the money will return to that reserve for future use.

MAT funds are generated through a four per cent surcharge on short-term stays at local hotels. Provincial policy dictates the revenues must be put toward infrastructure that promotes tourism and benefits residents and visitors.

Councillors Aiello, Bentz, Giertuga, Hamilton, Johnson, Oliver, and Peng voted to cut funding for the sign; Councillors Ch’ng, Foulds, Fraser, McKinnon, Ruberto, and Mayor Mauro voted against.

Tuesday’s decision won’t be final until the budget is ratified Feb. 8, following a meeting for public comment on Feb. 4.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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