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It Is Not Over Yet

It Is Not Over Yet

Thunder Bay’s grand recreational expansions of the past were done at a time of a much more buoyant tax base and economy.

THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO  ~~~~~~  March 13, 2021   (LSN)  On Monday evening, Thunder Bay City Council halted the process of constructing a new indoor multi-use turf facility by voting to not award the tender for the project.  This does not mean that the project is dead.  Rather, it was a decision made by the majority of councillors – many of whom are in fundamental agreement with the project but not its timing or cost – to not go with the current lowest bidder.  From an initial proposed $33 million, the project including interest on the 25-year debenture has now climbed to $46 million. That the project is not dead yet was confirmed by the Mayor in an interview this morning on CBC radio as well as other public comments made by proponents of the project.  This push to continue the project is also occurring despite what appears to be a rather large – albeit unscientifically polled – majority of 80 percent opposed.

The meeting on Monday evening was made remarkable by the concerted push by council members supporting the project to become increasingly strident about the need to invest in the multi-use turf facility project.  The standard claims about improving quality of life and attracting people to Thunder Bay were made but then the debate went a bit off the rails.  One councillor embarked on a sarcastic speech that essentially amounted to bullying the other councillors into seeing things his way by shaming them by arguing that they preferred to do nothing rather than something.  One is surprised that the councillor did not regale the councillors with a lengthy speech about how doing nothing does not make history.

The same councillor also tried to guilt the opponents with a fairness argument that other sports groups had gotten city-built facilities and now it was the turn of the groups using the Turf facility.  Indeed, in striking a coalition of support, the list of users for the facility now goes beyond soccer and apparently includes some eleven groups including Thunder Bay’s legendary pickleball players.  Moreover, the facility can even be used to host conventions.  It apparently is a reincarnated Events Center also - which incidentally a half-decade ago was also unable to garner federal and provincial support.  With all the proposed users, one wonders how many children will actually get field time to play soccer?

However, Thunder Bay’s grand recreational expansions of the past were done at a time of a much more buoyant tax base and economy.  It is not the 1970s anymore.  True, there will always be griping and opposition to spending on large projects but the other pressing issues facing the City – social housing for the homeless, crime, water infrastructure via the leaky pipe drama affecting thousands of homeowners – were conveniently not brought into the picture. Moreover, treating the turf facility as an isolated stand alone project when there are other infrastructure projects to be decided  - including a new police station - is disingenuous to say the least.

The councillor then began to draw comparisons with the Thunder Bay Art Gallery project despite the fact that the $30 million gallery project was largely being funded by its own fundraising campaign with a five million dollar contribution by the City of Thunder Bay as opposed to the Turf facility which will see its entire cost funded by the City via its own money  and a debenture. The Turf facility project was initially advanced as going ahead with partners at the federal and provincial level and funding from these other levels has never materialized.

The Mayor was somewhat more diplomatic saying he did not want to make comparisons but then proceeded to draw comparisons to the hospital project twenty years ago when the City made a $25 million contribution to the largely provincially funded project that was to be funded by a temporary tax levy increase.  The Mayor neglected to mention that after the funds had been raised, the tax levy was never removed and became permanently entrenched.  Moreover, unlike the Turf facility which had a private sector proposal for alternate facility that was rejected by City Council, hospital construction and operations in Ontario have always been largely public sector driven.  Even more, hospitals are seen as public necessities whereas sports facilities, while valuable and important, are difficult to place on the same level.

More interesting were the comments on the CBC radio interview this morning where the Mayor stated that the City’s finances were very good with only a $1.15 million deficit projected for 2021 and the lowest tax increase in a decade and that we could obviously afford the project.  Making long term commitments based on one year’s finances is never a good idea particularly giving recent City Budget projections calling for tax increases of 3-4 percent in years to come.  Moreover, not so long ago there was a wringing of hands over the cost of COVID-19 and only a few weeks ago the Mayor was again lamenting the need for more provincial financial support. 

The thing here is that in the end, in true Thunder Bay fashion, there were two groups involved in getting a new facility that were unable to work together.  One side earlier on seems to have successfully torpedoed the alternate group’s private sector proposal and have essentially gotten key city politicians and administrators on side with their idea for the publicly funded facility.  The initial proposal was for $33 million and was expected to garner support from other levels of government.  As noted, the total cost is now expected to be $46 million and shovels have not even gone into the ground yet, which once begun will no doubt reveal cost surprises. Given the history of rising costs in Thunder Bay public sector projects some councillors have rightly begun to balk. 

Yet, in the end I think the project will not die.  In Thunder Bay, proposed public spending projects are never too costly to completely die - they just need to evolve and stay the course.  The reason the Events Centre died in 2015 was the complete dearth of support from other governments. This time they can apparently at least tap into the Federal Gas Tax money.  The next two weeks are going to see a lot of horse-trading and behind the scene maneuvering led by the Mayor in particular in an effort to salvage the project in some format. Some of it will involve providing assurances regarding the state of the finances of the city and project costs.  As many have noted, all Monday’s vote did was turn down the current bid.  Even many of those who have been publicly branded by proponents as short-sighted civic do nothings for not supporting the project are actually not opposed to the turf facility – they are concerned about the timing and cost of the project.  If there is a convincing operatic performance by proponents that we can afford this after all, it will go ahead.  Unfortunately, this is simply business as usual when it comes to public spending and project development in Thunder Bay and continues Thunder Bay’s increasingly outdated civic vision.

 

#LSN_TBay  #LSN_Econ 

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The Northern Economist blog started on Shaw Webspace as commentary and analysis of economic issues and policy from a Northern Ontario perspective by Livio Di Matteo, Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It had regular posts from November 2010 to February 2012. Posts continued on Northern Economist 2.0 until 2013 when I took an extended break. Occasional posts resumed effective December 2016. With Shaw terminating its blog space functions, I have archived the old posts at: northerneconomistarchive.blogspot.ca.

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