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Construction of downtown plaza expected to start next spring

Completion estimated for late fall of 2022 or spring of 2023
2021-09-27 Provenzano proclamation on Orange Shirt Day
Mayor Christian Provenzano dressed in orange at tonight's meeting of City Council, after reading a proclamation proclaiming Sept. 30 as National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Sept. 30 is also Orange Shirt Day, encouraging global discussion of residential schools

City councillors have tonight voted eight-to-three giving final approval to the downtown plaza project.

Council agreed to spend as much as $1,646,000 in new money on the project, which will come from a gas-tax top-up windfall from the federal government's Canada Community Building Fund.

Using the gas-tax funds was suggested by Tom Vair, the city's deputy chief administrative officer for community development and enterprise services.

Vair was also authorized tonight to apply for $250,000 from the Ontario government's rural economic development program.

The provincial government had earlier declined support to the plaza, but a last-minute local fundraising effort that started Sept. 8 raised more than $954,000, exceeding an initial fundraising target of $600,000.

The total cost of the project approved tonight will be $8,447,068, with a total city contribution of up to $6,993,068.

Expected operating costs of the plaza will be $265,000 a year.

City staff were also authorized tonight to finalize construction drawings and issue a tender with construction costs and fees estimated at $7,844,000.

"This project has been an exciting project from the get-go," said Mayor Christian Provenzano.

"This comes after years of working collaboratively with community partners, hiring a consultant to study these issues, taking recommendations and looking at best practices in other municipalities, and really applying ourselves to the question of how we can improve our downtown," Provenzano said.

"I think we've seen a significant improvement in Bay Street. There's plans for Spring Street. Queen Street is on the books. But we needed a heart and centre."

"I just want to look at all those private-sector operators who are putting money into their buildings. The Village Media building. The IDA building. You have the Queen's Centre."

The mayor also spoke glowingly about a proposal by developer Albert Giommi to build a 60-unit condominium building on the Northern Breweries site, mentioned earlier at last night's meeting.

Provenzano commended city staff for landing the plaza project "within the budget that council asked them to land it in."

"We did not get provincial funding for this. One of the reasons why I believe we did not get provincial funding for this, is we got a significant amount of money for our arena."

"Nothing gets cheaper. Everything gets more expensive. If we leave important projects off the table, we say we'll come to it later... it is just going to get more expensive."

All of Sault Ste. Marie will benefit from the downtown plaza, the mayor said.

"It will go a far way in improving our downtown and the activity downtown. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing properly."

"It does not have any impact on the levy," said Ward 5 Coun. Corey Gardi.

"I'm very comfortable supporting the plaza," Gardi said. "This is revitalization."

In his report to City Council, Tom Vair fought back against arguments that the new plaza will duplicate existing services or adversely affect other downtown attractions:

Canal District

"The Canal District is a tremendous new development in the downtown. Featuring the Agawa Canyon Tour Train station, outdoor rink, an outfitter's shop, pub, restaurants and more, the location offers a great destination for residents and visitors."

"The downtown plaza is complementary to the Canal District and fulfils 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 (Downtown Association). 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."

"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 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 to 300 people would feel comfortable."

Vair said the $1,646,000 in gas-tax revenue to be put toward the plaza is from a one-time $4.4 million program top-up received this year.

"This is in addition to our more typical allocation of $4.6 million," he added.

$2.8 million of the one-time top-up would still be available for other projects.

A tender for the initiative would be issued in January.

Construction is expected to start in the spring of 2022.

Completion is estimated to be either late fall of 2022 or spring of 2023.

The following are contributions to the plaza in just 19 days of fundraising:

  • Tourism Sault Ste. Marie – $250,000
  • SSM Economic Development Corp. – $250,000
  • Rotary Club of Sault Ste. Marie – $200,000
  • Williams and McDaniel – $200,000
  • Soo Mill – $50,000 (towards play feature)
  • Kresin Engineerng Corp. – $5,000
  • Northern Credit Union – $5,000
  • Canadian Banknote – $2,500
  • Gary Trembinski Jr. – $2,000
  • Royal Bank of Canada – $1,500

"We have a number of conversations going on with different organizations in town as well, to support the plaza project, which we hope will generate some additional donations in the future," Vair said.

"I am in favour of the plaza. I was from the beginning," said Ward 1 Coun. Paul Christian. 

"We're beginning to create some density in the downtown. We're evolving."

"I'm not comfortable with the price, but I do believe in the development," Christian added.

"There have been naysayers for many developments in Sault Ste. Marie. Back in the 60s when they were looking at redeveloping the waterfront, there was pushback."

"We went forward and developed our waterfront and we were nationally recognized for the effort," Christian said.

Ward 4 Coun. Marchy Bruni said he favoured the new plaza, but only at the original cost of $5.3 million.

Bruni asked Vair how much money could be saved if the ice rink was removed from the project.

Vair told him the rink equipment is estimated to cost about $840,000.

Cutting the rink from the project would also allow a smaller building on the site because the current plan includes room for a Zamboni, Vair said.

Ward 4 Coun. Rick Niro pointed out that none of the $250,000 contribution from Tourism Sault Ste. Marie are tax dollars that come from the levy.

The tourism contribution is from money collected under the four per cent municipal accommodation tax charged for room visits in Sault Ste. Marie. 

Niro said he originally opposed taking money from the general levy to make up for the provincial funding shortfall on the plaza project, but he voted in favour of the plaza last night.

"The funding staff has proposed is federal funding, It doesn't come from municipal tax dollars, although I acknowledge we could use it for other things," Mayor Provenzano told Niro. 

Ward 2 Coun. Lisa Vezeau-Allen predicted the new plaza will "create something that our city's never seen and I think it will improve our downtown ten-fold."  

Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Shoemaker said he supported the plaza project, but only at the original $5.3 million budget.

"It's no secret that I voted against this the last time it came forward," Ward 5 Coun. Matthew Scott remarked.

"I'm not against the idea of it. I just don't know that the timing is right. I think there's a lot of other infrastructure we could be using this funding for," Scott said.

Ward 2's Luke Dufour said he supported the project. "I remember very well all the street parties of 2016, 2017."

Dufour fondly recalled what the downtown was like when three or four thousand people attended Christmas tree  lightings.

"It's really important that council show some leadership on this file and show some vision in building to that view of what downtown is going to be over the years to come," Dufour said.

Ward 1's Sandra Hollingsworth pressed Vair on whether there weren't some measures that could be taken to include an ice rink in the project but also keep costs down to the original $5.3 million budget.

"There must be a way to curb it down to the $5.3 or even $5.5 [million]," Hollingsworth said.

"We cannot become what we want if we remain who we are," said Ward 1 Coun. Donna Hilsinger. "This is a four-season opportunity... It's going to completely change the downtown. We have to have faith and we have to find a way to do it."

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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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