North core recommended for event centre
Citing economic benefits, a consulting group is recommending that Thunder Bay build a new event centre in the north downtown core.
A phase two feasibility study — released to the public Wednesday — rated the site currently occupied by the Water Street bus terminal as the top spot for a multi-use facility.
The north core beat out proposed locations at Innova Park and the Thunder Bay airport.
“We have to go with the best-case scenario, and this is it,” Mayor Keith Hobbs said at a media conference on Wednesday.
Hobbs said the report — available at thunderbay.ca/eventcentre — actually convinced him the north core is the best location. He initially wanted to see the event centre built in the south core to help revitalize that area. Hobbs was also a supporter of Innova Park as a location.
“I’ll talk about naysayers, because we’re going to have some,” Hobbs said. “The waterfront was a prime example.
“Thousands of people were opposed to the waterfront, and now a lot of those same people are saying ‘what a great job,’ and ‘look what it’s done for the downtown core.’
“That’s going to be such a vibrant area.”
Current plans call for a 5,700-seat arena with 50,000 square feet of convention space.
The total cost for the facility is pegged at $106 million. The city is still working to secure federal and provincial funding to help cover the costs (those include a new pedestrian overpass connecting the event centre grounds with Prince Arthur’s Landing).
One option is a 50/50 split between city and government sources. The other is the city would fund one-third of the cost.
“We’re not recommending 50 per cent,” city manager Tim Commisso said. “It’s a big ask of the province and federal government, no question.
“What we’re hoping is we can make a very convincing argument the economic benefit, the direct return from them making the investment, is there.
“We haven’t quantified the payback.”
Hobbs said without provincial or federal funding, the event centre simply won’t happen.
The city did say the project would create an estimated 265-380 full-time jobs,
The city would also need to pay $6.3 million for site “fit up,” which would include installing public art and relocating the nearby hydro station.
In addition, a north core site would require a 200-stall parking garage nearby, with other parking being handled via publicly- or privately-owned spots within 800 metres of the facility (the private sector has offered to negotiate the use of private spots near the site, the report states).
The city has not acquired any other property near the site, but has had preliminary discussions with private owners of other land and buildings there, Commisso said.
“If council was supportive of this, we would be looking, obviously, at property acquisition,” he said. “Nothing’s firm.”
Total cost for building a facility at Innova Park, the report states, would also be about $106 million, with extra costs associated with parking and road work. The consultants said that, in the end, the project costs are “roughly the same” whether the city builds at Innova Park or the north core.
NORTH CORE BENEFITS
The north core, however, lends itself to many more economic benefits, said Ron Bidulka of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the member of the consulting group who focussed on economic development and operations.
“If I’m a retailer, (or if) I am a restaurant, I need to rely not just on the 90-odd events that the events centre is going to attract, I need to rely on a whole bunch of other stuff,” he said. “Being out at Innova Park, for example, there are no uses out there. So I need to rely on other people driving into me to create a destination.”
However, there are other things — shops, restaurants, Prince Arthur’s Landing, etc. — in the north core already drawing people there, Bidulka said, and they tend to feed off one another.
“For example, in Kingston, the number of new businesses that have opened up in the vicinity of the K-Rock Centre has increased each and every year since that building has opened,” he said.
The same thing, Bidulka said, happened in Oshawa. He said 85 per cent of all building permits issued in Oshawa since 1994 were issued following the 2006 opening of the General Motors Centre.
“It’s creating a new economy, it’s creating a nighttime economy that just didn’t exist in those communities,” Bidulka said. “Part of that is because it’s not just a stand-alone facility.”
It’s not a guarantee, though.
Bidulka pointed out that new arenas or event centres don’t always have that kind of effect.
“It’s one piece of a puzzle,” he said. “If you put it in and hope that it survives or fails, well, it’s going to survive or fail. But if you help it by looking at other types of economic development policy initiatives, like the waterfront stuff, and all the other things . . . then all of a sudden you’ve got more and more reasons for it to make sense.
“When London . . . put the John Labatt Centre (now Budweiser Gardens) downtown, it just didn’t say ‘we’re going to build it there.’ They did a whole bunch of other things around it to stimulate economic development.
“So what happened? The number of building permits and the value of everything increased dramatically. Vacancy rates went down, rental rates went up. The number of residential units built in the vicinity . . . went up dramatically,” he said.
In that regard, Thunder Bay is well-placed to take advantage of a downtown event centre, Bidulka said, thanks to the Prince Arthur’s Landing revitalization project.
“The investors are saying ‘Well, wait a second — now we’ve got this big investment in the waterfront, which is going to attract people, I’ve got a hotel which has just been announced which is going to attract other types of people, so now I can get to the tourist market,’” Bidulka said. “‘I’ve got the residential community that’s going into the new condos, so now I’ve got a new base population.
“‘I’ve got this investment, I’ve got this facility,’” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, I can say ‘there’s a site that’s prime for redevelopment, there’s a building that I can then go in and fix up and then re-occupy with other things.’”
There are also technical reasons to choose the Water Street site, said lead consultant Conrad Boychuk of CEI Architecture. An entrance from Cumberland Street would bring spectators into the building above ice level and closer to their seats. The lower elevation of the Water Street side of the property lends itself to service access.
“When you look at a really high-performing spectator facility, having a sloped site is better than a flat site, in my mind,” he said. “You’ve got the public domain, which is your concourse area, and there’s a natural place on that site where you’d want to enter the building. Just the way the site is, it’s perfect for that.
“Diagonally opposite that is where you want to have your trucks entering the building, and that happens to be the lowest point on the site.”
The findings will be presented to Thunder Bay city council on Monday night as a first report. It would then come back Nov. 26, when council would be asked to approve a detailed facility development and business plan for 2013. That would include expressions of interest from possible private and public sector participants.
It’s still a long road before the facility becomes a reality, however, Commisso said, and the hope is for construction to begin in the next couple of years.
In the meantime, the city is hosting a public information session on the event centre on Nov. 21, starting at 7 p.m., at the Community Auditorium.