Every councillor agreed that having new sports facilities for the 2021 Canada Summer Games would be beneficial to Thorold, but they disagreed about the city’s level of financial commitment to the project.
Doug Hamilton, chair of the 2021 Canada Summer Games Host Society, appeared at Tuesday’s council meeting to “support the recommendations” made in a staff report.
“The Games are a tremendous catalyst for infrastructure development,” he said, adding that the facilities used for the Games provide a “lasting community legacy.”
The recent 2019 Games held in Red Deer—“a community of 100,000 people—received $250 million in infrastructure development,” said Hamilton. “This is a one-time opportunity for Niagara. “They (Games) happen every two years, and Ontario will see their next run in 25 years,” as they rotate in provinces across the country. “Our plan calls for improvements to sport facilities across Niagara.”
Two key parts of the Host Society’s comprehensive business plan include building a Canada Games Park at Brock University, and enhancing the Henley Rowing Centre in Port Dalhousie. It recommends a cycling pavilion, beach volleyball courts, a 200-metre indoor running and walking track, along with parking space.
“Wrestling, beach volleyball, athletics, lacrosse, and mountain biking will be hosted here during the Games,” said Hamilton.
After lengthy debate, Council voted in favour of funding a maximum $7 million commitment, which includes $5 million to the new facility and an additional $2 million towards servicing infrastructure, subject to three conditions: that funding commitments are confirmed by upper levels of government and other partners to fully fund the capital cost of the Games; that partnership commitments are confirmed from the city of St. Catharines, Niagara Region, Brock University and the Canada Summer Games Host Society; and that an operating model and partnership agreement for the new facility be prepared for approval by Thorold city council.
Hamilton said the project’s total cost is $98.8 million, with 40 per cent coming from federal funding, 33 per cent from provincial funding, and “27 per cent left to make up” from various community partners.
Jobs and other “significant economic benefit to Niagara” would result from the multi-use, multi-generational facilities, including youth development, sport hosting and tourism, he said, as well as health and wellness and para-sport facilities.
Brock University is contributing $4 million, plus land valued at $6.5 million on which to build the facility.
Councillors Anthony Longo and Jim Handley recommended asking the Brock University Students Union to contribute, since they’ll be major users of the facility when the Games end, and its student population is at times larger than the city of Thorold’s.
Armed with his own research statistics, “I propose that BUSU will use the facility the most and at $20 per year per student, over five years that would be $3 million” in revenue, suggested Handley.
“And let’s treat the athletes the same. It would equate to a total sum of $3 million,” he said, if they each made a minor donation. With $3 million coming from athletes and $3 million from students, it would reduce the tax burden for Thorold residents, said Handley.
“I need to be responsible to citizens of Thorold; not to Brock students, or the city of St. Catharines.”
A Brock Niagara centre for health and wellness that currently runs on Lockhart Street in St. Catharines would move to the new facility under the plan, said Mayor Terry Ugulini, and an accessible Jumpstart playground—funded by Canadian Tire—would not be part of the facility, “but will be part of Thorold’s package,” said the mayor.
According to Hamilton, the fitness centre owners “would like to come to this facility and pay their share.” The Canadian Sport Institute of Ontario and “a number of other sport organizations—like the Coaching Association of Ontario, that has 10,000 coaches—has talked to us about being here.”
“Let it be known that I am not against the facility,” stated Handley. “I’m against the funding model.”
“My daughter is a world athlete for Special Olympics,” said Longo, adding they’ve travelled “all over the world, and I’ve seen what sport does for our young … and this facility will do that for the city of Thorold. I think we have a poorly negotiated agreement on capital; $7 million could be a drop in the bucket” in terms of Thorold’s future operating expenses for the facility, he added. “We went to purchase a minivan and we bought a Lamborghini, and now we have expensive oil changes.”
Longo asked that an amendment be made to the city’s approval of the project, for a Thorold council member to attend negotiations meetings, “so we are not blindsided” with future costs.
Mayor Terry Ugulini began reading a letter in support for the project from Coun. Fred Neale, who was on vacation. “The long-term benefits to our community will more than offset our $5 million” contribution, it said. “Future generations will use these facilities. New and existing businesses will expand.” Neale’s letter also stated that with the new arena built at Brock, the land currently occupied by the crumbling James Whyte Arena in Thorold could be used for a new library. “It will cost at least $6 million for James Whyte” renovations, Neale estimated.
Coun. Handley refuted Neale’s letter being read in his absence. A vote was taken, and other councillors concurred, forcing Ugulini to refrain from reading the rest of the letter.
“The funding model that came about was from our staff working in collaboration with the other groups,” said the mayor. “The cost to renovate the Whyte Arena is $6 million and we’d still have an old arena. This is a lot more than an arena, and it’s for facilities from seniors to kids, plus the outdoor facilities. People move into communities because they want amenities,” and business opportunities, he said, “so this is money well-spent. In the early 70s, when I was playing hockey in Thorold and then I started coaching, our forefathers built the (Frank) Doherty Arena, which at the time was the premiere facility. From that point forward to today, nothing has been done. We have let things deteriorate. We have a chance to move Thorold into the next generation and beyond, and we owe it to our community to step up to the plate,” said Ugulini. “You see what’s been done in Port Colborne, Pelham, and Fort Erie.”
According to the city’s director of public works and community services, Geoff Holman, the replacement cost of the old arena would be $18 million.
“What’s in front of us here is an opportunity for a $5 million investment,” he added.
“I agree with signing up for this,” said Coun. John Kenny. “We’re losing an arena in a few years. We need another arena. Here’s an opportunity for us to buy in and get something built. Five years from now, we’re going to look at that place and say, ‘What a great move’.”
“I think it’s too much on the taxpayers’ backs for how many people are going to use it,” said Coun. Carmen DeRose.
“I don’t mind if we tweak the funding,” said Coun. Ken Sentance. “I think this is going to be spectacular. If we do it right,” exploring sources of revenue, “there might not be any impact on the taxpayers of Thorold, and the legacy left will be a really good deal.”
Coun. Nella Dekker called the project “A great opportunity for our city; not only the hockey arena but a walking track that can be used for all ages. We have recreational facilities in Thorold that are busting at the seams to get a volleyball facility. To say that not a lot of people will use this, I disagree.”
A recorded vote was taken, and every councillor except Longo approved supporting the project in principle, subject to the aforementioned conditions.
Handley nominated Longo as attending negotiations on behalf of council, and Dekker nominated Kenny.
“By Coun. Longo voting against it, does he have the right to go negotiate it?” asked Kenny. “He doesn’t even want it.”
“I am not against the project,” argued Longo, adding that he objected to excessive costs.
“We had a recorded vote,” countered Kenny, “and you voted against it.”
“I explained myself,” Longo stated. “I want the facility built but I believe we are over paying on the capital portion. I am for the facility. Let’s get it built, but I’m not going to give away $7 million if I don’t think it’s right. We need a strong voice to make sure we have a good operating agreement.”
Individual ballots were given to councillors to vote for their choice of negotiator, which resulted in five votes for Kenny and three votes for Longo.