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Two councillors seek delay of indoor turf project

Mayor Mauro dismissed the call for a pause, saying nothing has changed his mind about the project

THUNDER BAY — At least two members of Thunder Bay city council want to delay tendering for construction of the proposed indoor turf facility at Chapples Park.

City councillor Brian Hamilton raised new concerns about the timing of the project Wednesday, and was supported by Councillor Mark Bentz.

Citing other looming city spending requirements, and the long-term impact of  COVID-19, Hamilton plans to present a motion to council next week to put the $34 million project on hold.

"We've all seen the plan. It's a fantastic amenity for the city. But we really have to be mindful of our financial position," the McKellar Ward representative said Wednesday.

But his arguments were quickly rejected by Mayor Bill Mauro, who said "I respect everybody's opinions, but this is the right time to move forward" with the covered turf facility.

According to Hamilton, the city must consider more options.

"I have been consistent in supporting the facility, but I've been hesitant to put all our eggs in one basket. There hasn't been a lot of thought put into an interim or Plan B, something that can get us over the initial hump" in terms of meeting the pressing needs for indoor sports playing areas, he said.

Hamilton argued that, during a pandemic which he said could impact the city "for multiple years," it's premature to proceed with such a costly project.

He said council has "not even looked at the Program and Services Review in a holistic view. Almost every item in that report is going to require dollars to realize long-term structural savings. Council should really digest and contemplate that report before moving forward on this expenditure."

Hamilton suggested that the city work on a Plan B to build capacity for indoor sports.

"We have  players that are desperate for turf time...let's provide capacity for turf sports," he said. "If we had made our strategic plan about that, we might be looking at much more options than we're looking at right now."

Hamilton noted that the private-sector sports dome near Golf Links Road is moving forward, but acknowledged that even if that accommodates much of the demand for soccer, the city may need to look at other things, such as forfeiting a hockey arena for soccer this winter.

Mayor Mauro said he expects a good debate about the project at council on Monday night, but said nothing has happened over the past four to six months to convince him to withdraw his strong support for the covered turf facility.

"The arguments that I've heard against it, to this point, quite frankly are not strong, well-based arguments," he said.

There's no word yet on the outcome of the city's application for $22 million in government infrastructure funding for the project, and Mauro has stated publicly in the past that the city cannot assume it will be approved. 

"It's never been a stumbling block for me...I said our chances of success perhaps were not great," he said Wednesday.

If government money is not available, the city plans to take out a $15 million debenture, which would raise the final price tag to about $42 million including interest on the loan.

Mauro said "The city borrows every year. It's just a matter of what you want to borrow for," but added that there are alternatives for how the project might ultimately be funded. 

The Mayor said council supported zoning for the new sports dome because it knew there's room in the community for both the private-sector facility and a city-owned complex.

Bentz, a councillor-at-large, said the city's financial landscape has changed drastically since the onset of COVID-19. 

"We need to figure out what's happening with our revenues. The pandemic is the key driver here," he said, pointing to the most recent projections of a $7 million impact on this year's city budget.

Some relief will come from the senior governments, but the amount has not been determined, and Bentz said the city's revenue situation will likely remain uncertain for another year or two.

He also reiterated his previously-expressed concerns that if the city were to proceed with awarding a contract for the turf facility, it could jeopardize the chance of getting some government grants.

"If they do put stimulus money out, they're not going to stimulate projects that are already going," he said.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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