Politicians and senior staff moved quickly to capitalize on the recent announcement from MP Anthony Rota of federal funding up to $25.77 million for one of the City's most scrutinized and divisive projects.
North Bay City Council has approved the next steps in realizing the construction of its proposed community and recreation centre (CRC), including two new ice pads, to be located on Lakeshore Drive, west of the existing Steve Omischl Sports Complex.
In special meetings held Wednesday, Council directed staff to complete the building design to achieve the requirements for a "Net Zero Carbon" multi-purpose community and recreation centre in order to meet the requirements to receive the recently announced funding from the Green and Inclusive Community Buildings program.
To accomplish that, Council also approved an additional $584,000 to the previously awarded contract to MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (MJMA) Ltd. to complete the necessary background studies, the Net Zero Carbon Building design, construction document preparation, and building certification for the CRC.
The redesign plan will determine the updated cost of the project. Council also directed staff to tender the construction of the CRC upon completion of those design modifications.
A timeline has been established that allows four to five months for the redesign and studies, with a target of the end of October for that work. The City would like to tender the construction work in November or December, at the latest. If these goals are met — and with council approval — construction of the CRC would begin in spring 2023 and aim for completion by fall 2024.
With an October municipal election in the offing, that council approval will have to come from the members chosen by ballot this fall. There will likely be some incumbents who earn re-election but a dramatic shift around the table could still scuttle the plans for the CRC.
Much of the discussion focused on the increasing cost of the project. Once the haggling over where to build subsided, the construction cost of the CRC was initially pegged at between $30 million and $32.5 million in January 2020.
After expanding the square footage of the CRC plan, the cost was estimated to be between $32 million and $34 million in June 2020.
By November 2020, the cost had risen to $35 million and by January 2021 budget deliberations, the project carried a cost of $41.125 million. The latter figure included the reconstruction of the Lakeshore Drive and Booth Road intersection that would enter the CRC. The estimated special debt to be borne by the City of North Bay and its taxpayers was $31.68 million.
The latest figure cited by City of North Bay senior staff and the price tag that accompanied the application for the federal GIBC funding, showed a project cost of approximately $52 million, as of June 2021. This figure has been extrapolated from the traditional building cost to present the cost of a Net Zero build.
Amid rising building costs, economic pressures, and supply chain challenges, that $52-million cost is poised to increase when the redesigned plans are delivered this fall.
See also: No shortage of opinions on arena project
There are arguments to be made on both sides of the issue and they have been documented. With West Ferris Arena gasping its last breaths and Pete Palangio likely in its last decade of useful life, North Bay will be down three ice pads.
On the other hand, there are citizens who aren't too concerned that hockey players have to drive out of town to practice while others go hungry or unhoused. There are those, like Coun. Scott Robertson, who voted in favour of the CRC but stressed those millions of federal dollars would go a long way in the community to support people with mental health and addictions and shelter issues.
City CFO Margaret Karpenko responded to questions from Coun. Mark King about the capital funding plan.
"The comprehensive financial plan is forthcoming because we need the final design and new Class A estimates to determine whether the redesign and the mechanical will change the final value in the plan," said Karpenko.
"The City received $3 million in special dividends from North Bay Hydro several years ago," Karpenko added, "and those dollars have been used, primarily, to pay the architect and the costs to date. Additionally, we have received $9 million dollars in federal gas tax funding," that can be used for this project. Those funds have been in reserves for the CRC project.
"So, basically, we have about $9 million, plus the $25.77 million in federal funding," observed King. "Are we somewhere close to making this work?" he asked the CFO. "I get the impression from the report this isn't going to cost taxpayers any money."
Karpenko interjected, "No, the intent was not to say it would not cost any money. Not knowing the final costs, at this time, it's hard to make projections. As we've communicated through the last two capital budgets, we put placeholders for the project. Our long-term capital funding policy allows special one-time debt to be issued for transformational projects. We would be using those authorities, and at that time, the council of the day would have to authorize the required debt and any other financing plan that we put together would then be finalized."
King summed up by saying he was "prepared to support the $584,000 to find out where the project's cost is going to go."
Coun. Ed Valenti was the sole member to vote against, while Coun. George Maroosis was absent. Valenti noted he is in favour of building a new facility in West Ferris but is concerned about the rising cost. He and City Engineer John Severino went back and forth on the shape of the building and design features.
A comparison to the addition of two ice pads to an existing arena in Sault Ste. Marie for half the price of the North Bay project was dismissed by Severino as comparing "apples to oranges."
Severino told members the North Bay project has two to four more dressing rooms in its plan to address the outdoor facilities. Sault Ste. Marie has a multi-use recreational facility attached to it, so it has a lobby and other spaces that are part of their construction."
Severino estimated a $30-million cost for the Sault facility and noted the North Bay build would have up to four more dressing areas. Parking lots will also have to be designed and built in North Bay, he added.
Asked whether a rectangular build would be more cost-efficient, Severino advised the Y-shaped build reduces the environmental impact and blasting costs by spreading it out while maximizing potential parking spaces.
"I have serious concerns with the cost. We're at $52 million and that number is relatively new. We just got our $25.77-million grant in the last week but things are moving fast," noted Valenti. "It's been a long process in getting here. My concern is we're rushing into this process without knowing the breakdown. Should this get to a $60-million arena, the next council may decide that's not palatable and then we're back to square one."
King later added, "The question will be when it comes time to tender, whether it's the right time to do it or wait a year to see if inflation stagnates and the cost of building goes down."