By Ian Pattison
It all sounded so promising. Thunder Bay’s newest splash pad opened in 2017 at North End Park with “a sense of community,” said one City official. Neighbours flocked to see “Thunder Canyon” with its multiple water spray features to delight children.
The real “show piece” is a giant yellow bucket that slowly fills with water. Kids stand under it in suspenseful anticipation, waiting for the big dump of water that follows.
"There's lots of positive things happening here: families smiling, laughing, cheering,” said Current River Coun. Andrew Foulds. “This new bucket facility . . . the kids are laughing, screaming. I mean it's just amazing.”
Not everyone agrees. Only a perpetual grouch would frown upon children having fun. But in the densely populated North End neighbourhood, children screaming each time that bucket empties on them is too much for some.
Who can blame them? Some, whose kids love the bucket, are miffed. But other people can undoubtedly sympathize.
The City noise bylaw defines noise as “sound that is unusual or excessive, or that is reasonably unwanted by, or disturbing to persons, in the circumstance within which it occurs.” That fits this situation to a “T.”
Exemptions, however, include “ . . . recreational . . . events in parks or other public areas that are sanctioned or approved by the corporation.”
Strictly speaking then, a bunch of children squealing every time that bucket empties on their heads isn’t illegal. But in the absence of the exemption it is. That’s what can happen when politicians try to give themselves an “out” when writing bylaws.
In response to “multiple and ongoing” complaints that did follow, the City installed sound-barrier fencing in 2018. It didn’t do much to block the shrieks or mollify neighbours who couldn’t enjoy their own back yards with loud noise emanating from the park all day, every day, until 9 p.m.
And so the big bucket will be removed this month, much to the chagrin of parents and grandparents whose youngsters will have to make do with lesser attractions. Which is not to say they will be left bored at the $450,000 splash pad with its variety of water features. Nearby are beach volleyball and basketball courts and ice rinks in winter, all surrounding a community centre.
There will be consultations with neighbours, including those who say they were surprised by the decision, about a possible quieter alternative to the bucket.
Among them is Nicki Schiewe whose two young sons enjoy the splash pad and especially the bucket.
“I don’t mean any ill-will towards people who complained,” she told this newspaper. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, she said, “but the City is not letting people know about it and they’re not asking for input.”
Now that Schiewe has made her case known on social media, drawing hundreds of replies, the City has agreed to the idea of consultation about removal of the bucket, something that should have occurred earlier. Schiewe just wants to discuss a compromise that will make everyone happy -- a reasonable position and a starting point for discussion.
But the bucket’s fate is sealed. Now, where to put it. It seems the device will end up at either Boulevard or Chapples Park where wide-open spaces provide for noisy activities that don’t intrude on homes backing on neighbourhood parks like North End.
Splash pads are the City’s preferred water recreation option over outdoor swimming pools which require intensive maintenance, chlorination, regular water testing and lifeguards and are being phased out. That direction manifested itself most starkly with the recent decision to close and demolish Dease Street pool in the populous East End where sustained opposition could not sway city council from the new aquatics policy.
There are a number of large indoor pools available but they require users to travel. The popularity and convenience of a pool just down the street has been sacrificed to efficiency, cost and safety. Just as the popularity of the big yellow bucket has fallen victim to the senses of neighbours who can’t countenance the continuous loud sounds that it is designed to generate.
Foulds is caught in a difficult spot. He was one of the bucket’s biggest supporters but acknowledges that he has heard many complaints. He issued a warning of sorts to City administration that whatever feature is proposed instead "better be good. And, it better bring the same level of joy and excitement to the kids that this last feature did."
But of course if it does, there is every expectation that it could produce just as much noise. There are consequences to political decisions and politicians have to learn to live with them, not offer up faint hope of unworkable alternatives.
The big yellow bucket will end up somewhere else and kids will enjoy it just as much as they did at North End Rec. They’ll just have to ride their bikes or the bus or get a lift from parents to get there. Which doesn’t seem like too much to expect in order to keep peace and quiet in the neighbourhood.
Aside from Marina Park, splash pads are operating in Franklin and County Park neighbourhoods. James Street Park is the latest with the ultimate goal of a splash pad for every 5,000 children under the age of 9.
Thunder Bay citizens have always enjoyed a wide array of recreational opportunities in a city that continues to make them a priority. In comparison to many other communities, this one has a lot to offer.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.