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Opinion, Dave Dale: Arena gambit a timely drama

In the end, there were enough councillors with questions and other ideas to keep it on committee. A handful of project-friendly councillors were satisfied enough to either go ahead now or judge the decision on the only price estimate that counts – something only a tender call will provide.
2022 12 15 chess-pieces-crop
North Bay City Council is playing chess with public infrastructure investment.

The chess game in the North Bay council chambers over the two-pad community centre proposal is a four-dimensional drama worth the price of admission. Some of it masquerades as clunky checkers but that’s a feature of municipal politics, not a bug.

A special committee meeting was held Monday to discuss the status of the project, details of design, funding sources and probably impacts if a last-minute detour in the current plan is taken. More than half the city council members campaigned with the expressed intention of taking a hard look at location, design, costs, alternatives and priorities.

Some think the south-end Steve Omischl Sports Fields Complex is too far from centre of town and not even the heart of West Ferris. Others think more can be gotten for less, noting limitations due to the site and irregular design.

Proponents argue that other locations are more expensive and risk losing significant federal funding as well as flush several million already spent on design and studies (not to mention community input exercises).

See New arena decision heading for overtime for details

If it costs $650 in staff time to process a simple short-term rental application, with an on-site inspection, imagine how much time and resources has also been put into this plan over the past decade. And now imagine doing it again in the midst of a comprehensive operational review and potential management changes.

In the end, there were enough councillors with questions and other ideas to keep it on committee. A handful of project-friendly councillors were satisfied enough to either go ahead now or judge the decision on the only price estimate that counts – something only a tender call will provide.

Council was told they only need to borrow about $9 million or so if the Class A cost estimate comes in at $51.6 million. Staff said they have earmarked $7 million of property taxes already socked away, plus the nearly $26 million in federal ‘Green and Inclusive' grant and another $9 million in Canada Community Building Fund allocation.

Obviously, all of it comes out of the same pocket in the end so there has always been a duty to ensure it’s efficiently spent – because every decision has to be put through a cost and benefit analysis.

Key to this project, however, is the risk of losing a federal grant representing $26 million that is likely to evaporate if a new location or significant redesign process is undertaken. Mayor Peter Chirico acknowledged that Nipissing-Temiskaming MP Anthony Rota told him the grant is tied to the Omischl site and design with no indication another application will be successful due to schedules and process.

Time, however, is of the essence with the holidays putting a squeeze on all aspects including the upcoming budget discussion timeframes. The next scheduled meeting is mid-January, although another special committee meeting could be called before then. And the project would have to come out of committee with direction to staff to initiate the tender process sooner than later so bidders can pencil in their construction season bets. Basically, based on past experience, if there is a delay in the tender call the number of bidders decreases and quotes increase. No doubt that expectation inflates in a period of hyperinflation, interest rates climbing and material supply chain issues taking their toll.

Personally, at this point, I’m very interested in seeing what the tendered bids would reveal if the current design and location are maintained. I’m not enthusiastic about either the location or the unique trident design.

I’m even more interested in knowing what will be done if this option is stopped in its tracks with whatever rationale each councillor embraces.

As it stands, there are enough votes to kill the project outright and start over. But what then? How much will it cost to go another direction and how long will it take?

Meanwhile, there is a small matter of operational budget matters that need to be sorted out – and the money socked away for this project will be wanted to pay for those decisions.

And keep in mind, the appearance of conflict of interest might come into play when different options come before council which could change the equation.

This is the first big test of wills and tentatively aligned factions on council.

Will council sacrifice a queen of a federal grant in a blind-folded gambit for an unknown alternative? Or is this just a case of two sides blundering to an expensive draw?

Last week, a reader called me on part of my column about gun control legislation. The person said I should have researched the part about the ‘Poly’ discount code issue. Below is a clarified paragraph:

“Of course, when Carey Price aligned himself with the Canadian Coalition of Firearm Rights, he didn’t give it enough thought. Price has since said he regrets the timing of his social media post so close to the Dec. 6 anniversary and didn't agree with the CCFR using 'Poly' as a marketing code gimmick two weeks prior. The CCFR has stated it wasn't intentionally referencing the mass shooting or anniversary (see the group’s YouTube explainer posted Dec. 9) it was trolling the "PolySeSouvient" anti-gun group (named in reference to the Polytechique mass shooting). The CCFR says PolySeSouvient (Twitter handle Poly) and it have been battling online for several years and both sides have gotten carried away, but it notes the Poly code was only used Nov. 20 to Nov. 24. 

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to [email protected]. Contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website