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City panhandles to cover $2-million shortfall in downtown plaza funds

Many of the $8.45 million project’s proposed features are already available nearby, NOHFC says
2020-09-25 Dowtown Plaza 2
Proposed design of downtown plaza

City staffers are sofa-diving for a couple million dollars to complete the downtown plaza after Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. turned down a funding request.

“Your application has been carefully reviewed by the NOHFC board of directors and it has been determined that the project is declined because many of the project’s proposed recreational amenities are already available nearby in the community,” Jane Karhi, NOHFC manager of program services, wrote the city on July 21.

But Tom Vair, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for community development and enterprise services, isn’t buying any suggestion that the planned plaza will duplicate existing amenities.

He’s reluctant to scale back the $8.45-million project, and he’s leaving no stone unturned in his search for $2 million to make up for the NOHFC shortfall.

Vair will tell City Council on Monday that he sees several places he might be able to find the needed cash:

  • the recent $18-million provincial contribution to the twin-pad arena was an unexpected and major boost to the community and may free up funds for other projects
  • a new funding program was recently announced by the federal government for tourism and community revitalization
  • the federal government is advancing the legislation for a special, one-time gas-tax payment to municipalities under the new Canada Community-Building Fund (CCBF) program
  • other organizations have declared interest in supporting the downtown plaza.

"To reduce the scale and/or features presents a difficult decision point that could impact the success of the plaza," Vair says in a report to Mayor Provenzano and city councillors.

"In addition, removing features/elements that would equal $2 million would seriously compromise the plaza given the relative cost of each element."

"Based on the developments listed above, staff believes an opportunity exists to raise additional funds through other contributions and utilize a portion of the CCBF to enable the plaza to proceed."

Here, in Vair's own words, are his reaction to NOHFC's claim that the plaza design duplicates other nearby amenities:

  • Canal District: the downtown plaza is complementary to the Canal District and fulfills a distinct and separate strategic purpose. The best practice for municipal plazas is clear – it should be as close to the main commercial street as possible to benefit local businesses. There are approximately 189 businesses in the Business Improvement Area [BIA]. The Canal District is not located in the BIA so the events, activities and programming of the plaza cannot all take place at the Canal District location. Further, the rink feature located at the plaza is for skating only and will be provided free of charge. The city has experienced many winters in the past where we have limited skating days due to warm spells. The rink in the plaza will utilize compressors that will help ensure we have free, public skating available in the downtown from November to March. There is certainly room for the plaza and Canal District to co-exist and provide residents and visitors with multiple options and reasons to visit the downtown.
  • Roberta Bondar Pavilion: the Roberta Bondar Pavilion hosted 96 events in 2019. The plaza is a space for major events and an iconic feature on the waterfront. Families don’t generally visit the Bondar Pavilion to sit under the tent outside of a major event. Nor would it make sense to invest in further amenities at Roberta Bondar Park because of the goal is to drive activity and foot traffic close to the merchants on Queen Street. The Bondar Pavilion is a large-event space that can seat up to 1,750 people or 4,500 standing. That is significantly different from the small stage being planned for the plaza which is designed for smaller, local performances where an audience of 150-300 people would feel comfortable
  • Investment attraction: part of the goal of the plaza is to incentivize further investment in the downtown. Having a location that appeals to residents will help to improve the potential for businesses and attract residential development. City staff have engaged the development community on the downtown plaza project and received positive feedback that this type of investment will help further residential development and is exactly what the city should be doing in the downtown core

Vair is proposing to have his staff hustle to submit funding applications and to start a fundraising campaign for the plaza.

He’ll be back at City Council next month with a plan to move the plaza forward without the NOHFC millions.

Monday's City Council meeting will be livestreamed on SooToday starting at 4:30 p.m

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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