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Turf war: Push to delay facility fails by one vote

City council narrowly approves controversial indoor sports complex at contentious meeting.
Multi use indoor turf - indoor
An initial rendering shows the inside of the multi-use indoor turf facility. Council voted to proceed with the project early Tuesday morning. (Stantec)

THUNDER BAY – In an acrimonious debate that stretched well into the early morning, Thunder Bay’s city council has confirmed its decision to go ahead with a controversial indoor sports complex.

A last-ditch effort to delay a decision on the project by 90 days ultimately fell short, defeated on a 7-6 vote.

That was a closer margin than the initial vote to put the project to tender on Aug. 10, which passed 9-4.

The indoor soccer venue, which could also host sports including ultimate frisbee, cricket, football, lacrosse, and baseball training, has drawn widespread opposition over its price tag amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chamber of commerce urged the city to delay the project given the lack of hoped-for support from provincial and federal governments and the uncertain impact of COVID-19.

Thunder Bay’s Community Economic Development Commission, meanwhile, found the complex could end up costing the city up to $48 million, despite its nominal $33 million price tag.

City consultations found 50 per cent of respondents either opposed the project or wanted a delay, while 35 per cent supported it.

Still, a slim majority of councillors stuck with the facility, calling it a long-term investment in Thunder Bay’s future. Proponents on council have said the complex will offer badly-needed winter recreation opportunities for youth and help attract and retain young families to the city.

Coun. Shelby Ch’ng, responding to concerns over the impact of COVID-19, argued councillors needed to take the long view on the project’s impact.

“It’s not [about] the chaos of COVID-19 today,” she said. “It’s for the 10 or 15 years down the road, when COVID-19 is a distant memory and we have something to show.”  

Mayor Bill Mauro, who has championed the facility, pointed out the city would bear hardly any costs for it until 2023, and argued the city had the fiscal capacity to move ahead.

Coun. Brian Hamilton said families like his would benefit from the facility, but maintained committing to the massive investment during a time of financial uncertainty clearly went against the desire of the community.

He said council’s willingness to go ahead with the project would undermine any future arguments for fiscal restraint.

“The collateral damage from this decision tonight is going to make it very difficult to ask the public for any kind of service reductions, any implementation of the program and services review,” he said. “How are we going to go to the public and ask them to help us with our infrastructure gap if we’re not ready to address it ourselves?”

Coun. Trevor Giertuga said the decision had attracted some of the most feedback he’d seen on any issue in his 20 years of council, most of it negative. Some others, including Mauro and Coun. Aldo Ruberto, disputed that, saying they had received only in the neighbourhood of 60 comments from residents.

The debate, which lasted past 3 a.m., at times became acrimonious. Hamilton referred to the rationale of some supportive councillors as "bull crap," while Giertuga said it was "pigheaded" for supporters not to listen to community opposition.

On the final vote to move forward with putting the project to tender, councillors Aiello, Ch’ng, Foulds, Fraser, Oliver, Ruberto, and Mayor Mauro voted yes; councillors Bentz, Giertuga, Hamilton, Johnson, McKinnon, and You voted no.

McKinnon and You had previously voted in favour of proceeding, but threw their support behind a 90-day delay.