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No shortage of opinions on arena project

'That is extremely frustrating to have to go to meetings with people every day and talk about this arena and explain to them why this is not a $50 million building.'
Community and Recreation Centre (CNB) rink-and-track
Courtesy of MJMA Architects and Mitchell Jensen Architects via the City of North Bay.

Citizens, stakeholders, and municipal politicians continue to produce letters to the editor, social media posts, and phone calls and emails to representatives over the hot-button issue of the community and recreation centre proposed to be built adjacent to the Steve Omischl Sports Complex at the south end of Lakeshore Drive.

The arena question has evolved into a community issue with fascinating, valid viewpoints from several angles, as part of what was already a contentious project. It took years to decide where to build the arena, you might recall.

See related story: Mayor says City has 'capacity' to do arena project solo

Some contend North Bay is under-served as far as ice pads go, with teams forced to practice and play in venues outside the city. The community centre backers say the new build will provide a space for gatherings once the West Ferris Community Centre is closed for good. Advocates for accessibility have long worked toward realizing the goal of a complex that is truly built for everyone. 

Sports tourism proponents see a brand new building as a draw to bring larger tournaments and revenue streams to town. Some observe Pete Palangio Arena is already within 10 years of being shuttered itself. Many wonder if the private sector route was fully explored. Others clamour for a multi-use facility incorporating more than ice sports into the design.

On the other hand, an online petition launched Monday demanding North Bay City Council stop the community and recreation centre project and reallocate the funds to other, more immediate community needs. 

The petition had garnered over 250 supporters, as of early Tuesday afternoon. 

A combination of social media activity; financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; and, the rise and increased visibility of homelessness, mental health, and addictions issues has created an online push-back against the construction of the proposed centre.

Local citizen Anthony Campigotto posted an online response to a letter to the editor from the Chair of Sport North Bay favouring the project.

"Continued stories of break-ins downtown, news articles of businesses shutting down, or contemplating it. Drug abuse, violent altercations, shanty towns in the woods, tent cities on city hall lawn, bike thieving rings,"  wrote Campigotto. "None of this causes the community-minded citizen to think that our next biggest expenditure should be an arena."

Thomas Brown, another local resident, linked the aforementioned petition to a post on Facebook. The following is an excerpt from his post: 

"Sorry hockey community, I'd really love it if this city were in a position to prioritize this expenditure but from my personal perspective as a North Bay native and business owner in this city, this is not the time to shoulder the taxpayers of North Bay with 20 years of levy hikes so that one segment of our community can get a shiny new monument to hockey. There are a lot of other things where municipal tax dollars would make a major impact." 

Meanwhile, an opinion piece posted on BayToday by former mayoral candidate Gary Gardiner citing a rising project cost of $50 million has left municipal politicians disputing its accuracy while having to explain this new price tag to constituents. Gardiner concluded that letter saying he "fully supports the need for a true community-centric focused facility. But 'going-it-alone' is not the answer. There are other options out there."

See also: Deputy Mayor: More community centre delays 'will cost us in the long run'

Coun. Johanne Brousseau, who also wrote her own letter to the editor on the subject and chairs Council's community services committee responsible for the project says the architects' quote is $33.5 to $33.7 million. 

"The only way we will know the actuals is when we go to tender," she added. "When the construction companies come back, then we will see how accurate those costings are."

Monday, Coun. Scott Robertson shared some of his research on municipal arena costs with viewers of his regular council meeting preview live chat on Facebook.    

Robertson admits he does hear the calls to pause the project and he says the uncertainty surrounding the cost of construction materials emerging from the pandemic is worrisome.

"I know $35 million seems like a ridiculous price for an arena. But, in 2020, nobody builds single pads because it's not cost-efficient."

See: 'We can deliver' community and recreation centre 'on budget'

Working from a $33.5 to $33.7 million cost model, "I wish I could say the cost of the building is extravagant and on that basis, I'm voting against it," Robertson told his virtual audience. "I wish I could. I can't look at myself in the mirror because I know that this is the right [cost] for a building like this.

"We don't know how much this building is going to cost yet. We have to find out what the actual tender is going to be. We're putting it out to tender right now. If the thing comes back and they say 'No, it's actually going to be $45 million, or $50 million,' as people are talking about in the press, that's easy, I will vote no."

A viewer then asked Robertson during the live chat where the $50 million number to build the arena comes from.

He responded, "Good question. Let's talk about that. That is extremely frustrating to have to go to meetings with people every day and talk about this arena and explain to them why this is not a $50 million building."

Robertson continued, "This is a $50 million building because they counted the financing. When I bought my house for $172,000, I didn't say that it's a $250,000 building when you count interest paid on my mortgage. I didn't say it was a $300,000 building over 25 years. I said the building cost $172,000."

Robertson contends some of the costs attached to the project in Gardiner's op-ed includes traffic lights and infrastructure improvements that have been in the works for years.

"When they say $50 million, they're talking about the financing costs over 20 years and they're talking about infrastructure projects that are happening in the neighbourhood that are, to some degree, related to the arena," he observed.

Due to active transportation improvements and development at the south end of the city, Robertson maintains the infrastructure aspect would have happened in front of the Steve Omischl Sports Complex, with or without the construction of an arena.

The arena project is poised to be put out to tender this month. A 2021 budget line is in place and the City of North Bay's CFO has discussed issuing special debt to finance the build during recent budget deliberations. Council will have a final vote on awarding the contract for the project, likely before spring.

See related SooToday article: City Council gives go-ahead to twin-pad McMeeken replacement


Stu Campaigne

About the Author: Stu Campaigne

Stu Campaigne is a full-time news reporter for BayToday.ca, focusing on local politics and sharing our community's compelling human interest stories.
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