Council accepts defeat, reluctantly, on indoor turf facility

A decision on how, or whether, to move forward with a proposed indoor turf sports facility will rest with Thunder Bay’s next city council.

THUNDER BAY – A decision on how, or whether, to move forward with an indoor turf facility will rest with Thunder Bay’s next city council.

It’s an outcome the current council meetings accepted with frustration at one of its final Monday – and after several improvised attempts to find a last-minute way forward on the project failed to win enough votes.

A recommendation from city administration to hit pause on the project and leave major decisions to the next council, which will be elected on Oct. 24, passed on a 6-2 vote.

Staff made the recommendation as council approaches a so-called lame duck period next month in which its ability to make major new decisions will be restricted.

“Because there’s a requirement for additional financial investment to back a procurement, that’s a significant decision,” said general manager of community services Kelly Robertson. “Given we’re in an election year and there’s going to be a new slate of members of council. , it’s recommended we refer the decision to the new city council.”

Council debated, and ultimately rejected, pushes by Couns. Peng You and Shelby Ch’ng to take next steps on the project.

City leaders had acknowledged a way forward was unlikely after learning in June an application for $22 million in federal funds to support the project had been rejected.

Mayor Bill Mauro had championed the need for an off-season home for sports like soccer, Ultimate Frisbee, and cricket, arguing the facility would improve quality of life and help make the city more attractive to families and young professionals.

On Monday, Mauro said while he regretted it, the council had run out of time to take a definitive step forward on the project, and it was best left to the next term.

He weighed in against last-minute attempts from colleagues to move forward with procurement processes for a bubble or for a steel supported design similar to the one council rejected last year.

“In my opinion, we don’t necessarily have a choice,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’ve got enough information to pick one of these concepts. Quite frankly, we’re whistling in the wind – I don’t think there’s enough energy around the table to make a choice anyway.”

Mauro said a $39 million tender to build the facility at Chapples Park, which council rejected on a 7-5 vote in March 2021, had been its best chance to make it a reality.

Since the 2016 collapse of a dome at the CLE grounds, local players currently have access to one makeshift indoor turf field converted from an ice rink at the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre, along with the Lakehead University Hangar, severely limiting participation.

Coun. Peng You, who voted against awarding the tender, said council should look harder for a way forward.

“This is a failure of this term of council,” he said. “I feel sad, frustrated, ashamed.”

“Two terms of council couldn’t build an indoor turf facility? There’s something wrong with Thunder Bay.”

He argued council should embrace a proposal for a dome erected over the Fort William Stadium field, one of five expressions of interest the city received from the private sector last year.

Those proposals were put on hold for months as the city awaited word on federal funding.

Staff revealed details of the proposals for the first time in a report to council for Monday’s meeting, with staff emphasizing they were concepts, not shovel-ready projects.

Administration recommended against two proposed short-term solutions, including a seasonal bubble over the field at Fort William Stadium, and another from the Thunder Bay Tournament Center offering to convert its second rink to turf.

Staff reiterated conclusions reached in a previous report to the council that high energy use, risk of collapse, and shorter lifespans made air-supported structures a less attractive option.

The Tournament Center proposal has “many strengths,” general manager of community service Kelly Robertson acknowledged in her report, including the ability to be implemented quickly and cheaply.

However, based partly on consultation with turf users, it is recommended against it based on less-than-ideal playing conditions and the reduction in available ice time for existing users.

The rinks approximate a quarter field, while about three-quarters of demand for indoor turf is for a half-field pitch, the city reported.

Users also identified concerns including limited shock absorption of the turf surface, safety concerns related to rink boards, and limited height clearance, the city said.

Instead, staff recommended three proposals for a longer-term solution to be considered by the next council. Those include:

  • LT-1: Thunder Bay Multi-Use Indoor Turf Facility Partners proposed a pre-engineered steel framed building, and a public-private partnership – offering to operate as well as design, build, and finance the facility. The proposal discussed potential changes to the design and amenities from the city’s original Chapples design, but would maintain the full field dimensions.
  • LT-2: The Chapples Park Indoor Turf Facility Corporation proposed building the original proposed Chapples design, as well as financing it. It explicitly proposed a location at Chapples Park.
  • LT – 3: PCL proposed “respecting the original intent and scope of the project” while reviewing the design.

The proposals were concepts that came without detailed design or costing, staff emphasized. In an interview, Robertson couldn’t say if any of the proposals promised a significantly cheaper option than the $39 million design council had already rejected.

Coun. You pushed Monday to issue an RFP for an air-supported solution at Fort William Stadium, in line with one of the short-term expression of interest proposals submitted by Colab Sport Management.

“I want to get things done,” said You, responding to concerns over the plan. “We don’t have to be that fancy.”

Administration identified numerous concerns with the proposal, including significant energy requirements, with the site not necessarily equipped to provide sufficient power, and potential damage to the rubberized track that surrounds the field.

Coun. Brian Hamilton also highlighted concerns raised by staff that the option could cause congestion at the already-busy site.

“Delaney is a very busy arena, there’s a clash with user groups, there’s insufficient parking,” he said. “I’m also in no mood to go and rush and spend the reserve account we generated. What I’d like to see here is us as council to do the responsible thing and set the next council up for success.”

Staff roughly estimated costs for the Fort William Stadium option at $16 million, but You argued the proponent had offered to finance the project itself. The city is still required to arrange financing as a backstop before it can issue a request for proposals to build a facility, staff said.

The city has roughly $17.5 million in an indoor turf facility reserve fund, staff reported.

Coun. You’s motion to issue a request for proposals for a dome at the Fort William Stadium failed on a 7-1 vote.

Coun. Shelby Ch’ng’s subsequent motion to issue an RFP based on the long-term proposals received failed on a 6-2 vote.

She expressed frustration council hadn’t yet moved forward on the project, and argued the next council wouldn’t be legally bound by the RFP but would at least have an actionable option to consider.

“I think we’re all just sort of throwing some stuff on the table,” Coun said. Mark Bentz, reflecting the sentiments of many during a meeting that went well past 1 am “We may just be at the end of the line here.”

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