Thunder Bay Phase 2 Event Centre Feasibility Study completed

On November 26th, 2012, Thunder Bay City Council approved the Feasibility Study for their proposed new Event Centre. Access sat down with CEI’s Conrad Boychuk, leader of the Consulting Team.

Access: You’ve been involved in the Phase 2 Feasibility Study for the Thunder Bay Event Centre for some time now. What was the project background and what were the expectations for Phase 2?

CB: At one level, the project is about replacing the old Fort William Gardens, a facility that was opened over 60 years ago and in need of replacement. There is a general consensus in the community that replacement is appropriate and supportable although there is, in the minds of some, a question as to what to do with the old building.

The City had in its own mind a 6,500 fixed-seat multi-purpose arena and an attached 50,000 square foot conference centre. Part of the Feasibility Study was to fine tune these two elements, engage the public in that process, and develop an estimate of probable costs.

The really critical part of the Feasibility Study was coming to grips with a preferred location. At one point there were eight sites being mentioned as possible considerations although it really came down to two sites, one in a downtown location, and one on the very edge of the City. The issue of site selection was one that appeared to polarize the community.

Access: Is this kind of polarization normal? If so, how did you deal with it?

CB: A community with some level of strongly opposing opinions for this kind of project is quite normal, but usually the question is whether or not to build it, not on location. The Fort William Gardens is on the periphery of the old downtown core and had only on-street parking around it.  One portion of the community focused on the issue of access and parking, while the other group was more about the benefits of rebuilding their downtown. Incidentally, Thunder Bay is the amalgamation of Fort William and Port Arthur, so there are actually two old downtown areas, both in need of renewal. I grew up there and had a pretty good insight into the dynamics on both sides.

Access: What were the biggest challenges?

CB: Probably bringing a level of clarity to the process. I was quite aware of the site issue and the motivations of both sides. Fundamental to our approach was the development of a site evaluation matrix. It had seven values or criteria that were published on the City’s website and incorporated into our two public open house events. The community had an opportunity to rank these before we used them for the actual evaluation of the sites. In order of preference, these values or criteria were economic impact, vision, access, city-building, complimentary benefits and parking (tied), cost impact, and ease of development.

One issue that I thought could be a challenge was the development of both a multi-purpose spectator facility and a conference centre on the downtown site. By incorporating a city street into our site the planning actually become remarkably simple and with some significant benefits from an urban planning perspective.

Access: Were you surprised by the community’s ranking of the components in your site evaluation matrix?

CB: Yes! I knew that economic impact would be high along with access. Considering the polarity within the community and the high percentage of older attendees at the two open house events, I did expect parking to be scored higher than fifth. What was really gratifying was to see more philosophic values such as vision and city-building scored as highly as they were. Cost impact and ease of development, ranked at the bottom, told us that the community really wanted to do it right!

Access: So what are the highlights of the project?

CB: There are a couple. First, we revisited the program from a market perspective and concluded that the ideal size for the spectator facility was 5,700 fixed seats versus the City’s original plan for 6,500. Our research confirmed the appropriateness for the 50,000 square foot conference centre. The project also includes 24 private suites and an opportunity for some party rooms. Because we are recommending the downtown site, we also incorporated a 6,000 square foot restaurant space overlooking Lake Superior and Prince Arthur’s Landing – the City’s spectacular waterfront park which opened a year ago.

For me, there are a couple of personal highlights as I grew up in Thunder Bay and spent a lot of time in the area of the downtown site. The proposed design develops an under-utilized parcel of land on Port Arthur’s main commercial street and takes advantage of the slope of the property to both create an exceptionally functional event centre design, and one that, by virtue of being sunken into the ground, has a surprisingly low street profile. We also converted a sloping city street into a level pedestrian one and extended it over the railway tracks that separate the site from Prince Arthur’s Landing. This pedestrian linkage is for me, one of the real highlights of the overall design. Its impact on the pedestrian quality of the downtown experience will be quite exceptional.

Access: What’s next?

CB: Phase 2 has been about bringing consensus to the issue of site. Of course not everyone is on board but Council voted overwhelmingly to accept the recommendations of our report including “next steps”. There are three critical issues that now need to be dealt with. The first is focusing more on the design of the event centre for this specific site with a higher level of costing detail. The second is to gauge the interest of sports franchises interested in Thunder Bay as a location. At this point there is interest from both the American Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League. The most important issue though is securing funding partners, and this means the Province of Ontario, the Federal Government, and possible private sector partners. Only then can the City deal with actually moving forward on a replacement of the Fort William Gardens.

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