After seven years, Tim Commisso is stepping down as Thunder Bay's city manager.
This week marked the last time he would attend a city council meeting in that role as he officially retires after today. A graduate of Lakehead University, Commisso started his career with the Canada Games Complex in 1981 before moving to city hall in 1986. He left his hometown for 20 years to work in Burlington, Ont. where he was a budget manager before working his way up to general manager. He managed to come back to Thunder Bay in 2008 where he took on his role of city manager.
Commisso sat down with The Chronicle-Journal prior to retiring to reflect on his time as one of the longest serving city managers in Thunder Bay's history.
Commisso: I thoroughly enjoyed working with the mayor and council. I say that with all sincerity. I love working with (Mayor Keith Hobbs). He's dedicated, hard working and also mayor Lynn (Peterson). She was the mayor when I came here. I drive a lot of my motivation from working with councils because councils aren't typically in the business of doing something because they are trying to get wealthy or anything. Their hearts are in the community. Not only do I love Thunder Bay, I love Northwestern Ontario. I grew up in Pickle Lake and my first eight, nine years were in this small community, which at that time was thriving because of the mining and all of that. Since then, it has transformed itself. Every year I try to drive back from Toronto or someplace just to drive through the region, through the North shore. My family is here, my parents are still here - they are still with us thank god - so it is just home for me. The work, no question, is challenging because you have to work hard. Things don't always come easy to Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario. That's why I extend my appreciation to the two MPPs Michael Gravelle and Bill Mauro. Bill has been a friend of mine for a long time as well as our federal MPs. You got to work hard and fight for everything you got here and I really enjoyed working with them, especially at the provincially level. Overall, I'm proud of the work we have done.
Question: At any time with the event centre, did you ever want it to be a legacy?
Commisso: Not at all. To me, even with this interview, I appreciate it but I don't have a big desire for this that and the other thing. I'm driven by the fact that there's an opportunity to move the city forward. I was a deputy city treasurer of the budget manager for a long time. I understand financial implications, I understand the reality of it. My view is we are investing in infrastructure. We've doubled our infrastructure at the tax supported level. So I view the event centre as something as A) something that replaces a facility that has been around for a long time but adds to it and provides more opportunities for people to come to Thunder Bay and attract investment. And at the end of the day - and I've totally been reinforcing it - it's not happening without us being able to attract funding so we're able to leverage this project. For whatever reason, it has been painted as a $100 million project, which the city's citizens are going to have to totally support and that's not the case. Muncton just got a facility. The reality of it is, I've had to become involved with it. I haven't had a problem with that. I'm leaving knowing that it may happen, it may not happen but at least we made our best shot and I still think it's something in the long run that would help Thunder Bay in terms of moving forward. I'm realistic but optimistic that both federal and provincial levels will help with the project.
Q: When you were talking about the Canada Games Complex, I couldn't help but seeing that pride and excitement when you were talking about it. Did you kind of want to have that experience again with the event centre?
Commisso: You don't do this without some desire. People somehow painted it as a legacy. It's not a legacy. I don't . . . I've been working for 34 and a half years. I could go back and point to a whole bunch of different things but it's about wanting to do things. I've been involved with municipal government for a long time. I think I generally have an understanding that when you make strategic public investments that stimulates growth and it leverages private sector investment. If you do that particularly in your downtowns, and you see revitalization and transformations in your downtowns, then that's the best type of growth. You bring back to life areas, you don't have to build it.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you sometimes put yourself out there and I know for a fact you are not afraid to give your opinion or to take a hit if it's necessary but was that more difficult to do that in your hometown?
Commisso: Not really. I think the reality of it is that Thunder Bay has a lot of media that focuses on the city. I get that. I think that's one of the real values and I really appreciate working with local media. But like my dad says 'do your best.' Not everyone is going to be happy. I've kind of gone through my career without being reckless. There's going to be people who don't like what you do. Being a city manager comes with the reality of stepping out in front. It's just the way it is. That's one of the reasons I have such respect for council because they are in the same light.
Q: I was just wondering, why now after so many years, after seven years?
Commisso: The way I look at it is . . . 34 and a half years is a long enough career and seven years as city manager. I could continue to work but I really think it's time, and I'm really pleased with the transformation of the staff. I'm sort of from the old school. My ideas and approach is something . . . I think there needs to be a change. I think that change will be good. The flip side of it is, I've got commitments to my family. My spouse lives in another area in southern Ontario. People are getting old, right. I have to make a choice. I'm very fortunate to have all my family here. It's a combination of family and it has been a really good seven years. I'm proud of the work but seven years, in my world, is as long as I think a city manager should be in place.