Event Centre vote 11-2 to move to Phase Three

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Hockey action at Fort William Gardens
There is some fantastic hockey action at Fort William Gardens.
Hockey action at Fort William Gardens
There is some fantastic hockey action at Fort William Gardens.

THUNDER BAY – It was a vote that really wasn’t in question. Moving from Phase two to Phase three of the study of a new Multi-purpose or Event Centre for Thunder Bay had the support of a majority of city councillors. Opponents to the project expressed their views, as did supporters, and in an 11-2 vote the project is moving forward.

Several councillors were pointing out that this does not mean a decision to build, but that the site location of the downtown northcore has been picked as the best location. The process moving forward now requires funding from senior levels of government. Both the province and the federal government will have to be there along with the city before the project can move forward.

The consultants now have a year to prepare a business plan, and to explore how that funding could be accessed.

The issues that need to be addressed as the project continues forward should include a solid plan to have public transit as a part of the facility. That has not been done in the past, someone taking public transit to an event at Fort William Gardens, The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, or the Community Auditorium, is well aware of the shortfalls in service that keep local residents in their vehicles.

Standing outside in January waiting on a bus is hardly the end to a fun night out that it could be. Other communities co-ordinate events and transit to the benefit of both. Thunder Bay should be doing that in planning the event centre. For those who find parking a concern, Thunder Bay has many venues where parking is an issue. Fort William Gardens has survived for years without a solid place to park.

There is also a tremendous opportunity for the Event Centre, with proper planning to become the new home of the Canadian Lakehead Exhibition. Perhaps planning the facility together so that the CLE can prosper even more should be factored into the data?

Included in the City’s plan over the coming year will be a study of Fort William Gardens, and what to do with the facility. This is a part of the overall facility planning process that all city facilities undergo.

The event centre is estimated to cost about $106 million, and would likely require, as an arena an OHL or other team in addition to the Lakehead Thunderwolves. In terms of the SIJHL’s Thunder Bay North Stars, there is no word on where the team would play if the Fort William Gardens were not available.

In Duluth, the SIJHL Duluth Clydesdales play in the Heritage Centre which seats 1300 hockey fans. In Thunder Bay for the North Stars, attendance is usually less than 500 fans to a game. For the team to move to a 5700 seat facility it is hard to tell if that would make economic sense.

The Lakehead Thunderwolves who currently play in the Fort William Gardens have attendance between 2700 to 3700 fans.

It should be included in the study toward a larger venue how many more fans would come out to events so that the larger facility can be filled.

In terms of entertainment, Thunder Bay needs a venue that larger shows can play, that have good acoustics, and enough seating to provide more affordable tickets. Some have hoped that professional wrestling events like the WWE® could make our city a regular stop. In the past five years, pro wrestling shows in the city have drawn far less than full houses playing at the Fort William Gardens.

One area that our community will have to likely overcome is what is become widely known is our community’s ‘last minute’ or ‘walk up’ mentality toward attending events. For event promoters, meeting expenses comes from ticket sales. If people wait until the last minute to purchase their tickets, that uncertainty has many show promoters by-passing Thunder Bay.

That might be overcome by a newer facility, but proponents of the new facility might help the cause along by helping put ‘butts in seats’ at local events now and by their support break that image that Thunder Bay has generated over the past ten or so years.

The prospect of a convention centre as a key component of the Event Centre would add a key component to the mix of what is missing in Thunder Bay. There likely needs to be great planning however to develop a shuttle bus program – a large convention would easily fill the Prince Arthur Hotel and the new Delta at the Waterfront. Event planners would have to factor in transportation costs for attendees coming from the Valhalla, Victoria Inn, or Airlane Hotel as convention attendees.

Adding $100 per day to the expense account of convention guests for cab fare isn’t a path to success for a new convention centre.

Overall, moving forward to keep the process going is a move that makes sense. It also adds a year to the planning phase and likely puts the project smack dap into the next civic election campaign as a major issue.

James Murray

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