The Multiplex Endgame – Di Matteo

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THUNDER BAY – On Thunder Bay City Council’s agenda for Monday evening will be the shortlist for the “proposed events centre” with the top three choices now narrowed down to: Innova Park, the downtown north core and land near the Thunder Bay International Airport. What is remarkable is that the debate is focusing on location whereas the project has still not been approved. Moreover, while the studies to date have noted a need to replace the aging Fort William Gardens facility, there has been little discussion of how the new multi-purpose events centre will impact the city-owned auditorium. After all, the multiplex will also be an alternate venue for some of the smaller events that the auditorium currently hosts, which will eat into its revenue. However, I believe there will be an events centre and that now makes its location the key issue despite the sideways process pursuing it.

If Thunder Bay is going to make a strategic investment in its future, a location in the north/Port Arthur core waterfront area should be its first choice given the waterfront development going on there and the designation of the area as a tourism/entertainment area. The events centre should be a signature piece of architecture that will become a marketing symbol of Thunder Bay’s skyline and waterfront. It will anchor an urban entertainment and convention area that will give the city a concentrated area of walkable urban nightlife with diverse dining and entertainment opportunities.

The second best choice is neither the airport location or Innova Park, it is the downtown south/Fort William Core given the fact that it is already home to the Fort William Gardens (a home for sixty years despite the absences of acres of asphalt parking that seem so vital to proponents of Innova Park) and is also a higher density core area undergoing renewal. Locating the new events centre either near the airport or Innova Park will be a decision made on the basis of short-term convenience and will set Thunder Bay back a generation in terms of its urban development.

Thunder Bay’s history as two cities gave it two core areas but much of the development since 1970 has occurred in the intercity area and created a dispersed, car-oriented and low-density urban area.

While the intercity area is a logical place for private sector development given its location between two population clusters, also locating public buildings there ostensibly to deal with north-south rivalry has destroyed the density needed for an urban feel to the city as well as cost-effective public transit. It has only been the last decade that a move back towards the core areas has begun with the new historical museum, the courthouse, the casino and the new Magnus Theatre projects going into the core areas – unlike the auditorium and art gallery which went into intercity. Putting the events centre outside either of the core areas will represent a reversal of this process.

Despite City Council’s assertion that all the short-listed sites are in the running, it is hard not to feel that the events centre is slowly being maneuvered into the Innova Park location. The three short-listed choices have already set up the classic Thunder Bay location strategy maneuver – a north side choice, a south side choice and the middle “compromise” choice that will be many people’s second best solution. We have already seen this employed before in Thunder Bay with hospital location. Moreover, given what seems to be a concerted development strategy to make Junot/Golf Links a commercial corridor, major land owners and developers in the area (including the City which owns Innova Park) would also find their property values enhanced by a major new greenfield project in Innova Park.

I think City Council after several more months of public contemplation and self-flagellating debate designed to demonstrate how personally hard this decision has been for them will opt for Innova Park because it enhances the Junot/Golf Links development strategy that seems to be occurring, makes use of Innova Park – the city promoted industrial park that has sat empty for years – and fulfills the desire of many car-oriented residents in the city for sites with lots of parking.

This decision will cement a new western fringe of dispersed urban development for Thunder Bay, set back the development of urban core density and leave us with a new generation of cheap box buildings that say we are still a frontier town with little long-term vision aside from having shiny new buildings.

City Council will atone for this decision by creating more bike lanes and sidewalks and start a new campaign on how wonderful the quality of life is in Thunder Bay. I dare them to prove me wrong. On Monday night, never mind a short list. Given there is already an implicit decision to build the events centre, pick the north core waterfront location and start planning on how to make it work.

Livio Di Matteo


Di MatteoLivio Di Matteo is an economist in Thunder Bay, Ontario specializing in public policy, health economics, public finance and economic history.  Livio Di Matteo is a graduate of the Fort William Collegiate Institute (1898-2005) whose school motto “Agimus Meliora” has served as a personal inspiration.  Livio Di Matteo holds a PhD from McMaster University, an MA from the University of Western Ontario and an Honours BA from Lakehead University.   He is Professor of Economics at Lakehead University where he has served since 1990.  His research has explored the sustainability of provincial government health spending, historical wealth and asset holding and economic performance and institutions in Northwestern Ontario and the central North American economic region.  His historical wealth research using census-linked probate records is funded by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  He has constructed, assembled and analyzed nearly 12,000 estate files for Ontario over the period 1870 to 1930.  Livio Di Matteo writes and comments on public policy and his articles have appeared in the National Post, Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press and Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal and NetNewsledger.com.  Livio Di Matteo has had an entry in Canadian Who’s Who since 1995.

This article was originally posted on Livio Di Matteo’s NORTHERN ECONOMIST Blog at http://ldimatte.shawwebspace.ca.

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