In the face of aging and absent sports facilities, is it time for Thunder Bay to step up its game?

As the city grapples with the need to improve and replace multiple sports facilities, some local recreation experts say it may be time for Thunder Bay to think more creatively about how to fill the facilities gaps.

Sports groups in Thunder Bay have been dealt several blows in recent years

The future of Thunder Bay's Fort William Gardens has been much debated. (Amy Hadley/CBC)
Is it time for Thunder Bay to step up its game, when it comes to sports facilities? Tom Warden, Donna Gilhooly and Dave Siciliano weigh in. 16:02

The past year hasn't been an especially relaxing one for Michael Veneziale.

The president of the Thunder Bay men's soccer league would no doubt like to be spending his spare time on the field.

Instead he's been fielding calls and meeting in board rooms, trying to keep local athletes in the game after the loss of the Sports Dome, an important indoor practice space for soccer in the northwestern Ontario city that collapsed in a 2016 storm.

"It's been pretty stressful," said Veneziale, who is also the director of senior soccer with Soccer Northwest Ontario. 
Michael Veneziale, president of the Thunder Bay men's soccer league and director of senior soccer with Soccer Northwest, plays with his young son. (Michael Veneziale)

Soccer players have been resourceful, and found stop-gap measures to get them through this winter, while they work with the city to try to come up with a long-term solution. 

"The city has been absolutely great to work with," he said, but once a plan for a new facility is completed, he still worries about securing the political will, and funding needed to make it a reality. 

Sports facilities 'under strain'

Soccer's dilemma is part of a larger challenge facing the city of Thunder Bay, as it grapples with the need to improve and replace multiple sports facilities, including the aging Fort William Gardens hockey arena. The collapsed dome also housed golf and trampoline sports, and earlier this year, tennis players  lost their indoor space

In the face of those challenges, some recreation experts say it's time for Thunder Bay to think more creatively about how to fill the gaps. 

The Sports Dome in Thunder Bay collapsed during a November 2016 storm. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"The reality is that 70 per cent of our sport and recreation facilities were built between 1950 and, I think, 1980 ... so, they're aging," said former city recreation department head Donna Gilhooly as part of a panel discussion on CBC Thunder Bay's Superior Morning.

"I mean, they're almost baby boomers. Think of your own baby boomer body. I mean, bits and bobs go, and eventually something has to be replaced. They're under strain." 

But city budgets are also under strain. Recreation is an important part of resident satisfaction for people of all ages, said Gilhooly, but securing the necessary funding for projects can be a challenge, overshadowed by the demands of paving roads or clearing snow. 

Champions of sports will need to "be tenacious," she said. And when it comes to new facilities, embracing social enterprise models that also bring in their own revenue, may be essential.   

Representatives from Soccer Northwest Ontario rally outside Thunder Bay City Hall in January 2017, before appearing before council to ask for help establishing a permanent, year-round turf sports facility in Thunder Bay. The city is currently working with Soccer Northwest, and other interested parties, on a plan to be presented to council. (Supplied by Gwen Gamble)

'We're behind'

Several years ago, as the city was developing its now dormant plans for a new arena and event center, Dave Siciliano, a well-known member of the hockey community, and former community services director, did a study for Thunder Bay city administration. It took him to various cities in Canada and the U.S. to assess the work those cities had done to replace their own aging arenas.

"Certainly the places I looked at, we're behind," he said, "because they've all replaced" their arenas, and "at a fairly economical cost." 

In other communities, partnerships between public and private entities have been the key to building new facilities, he said.

"I think too often we look at, that council's got to take care of everybody with tax dollars that we pay. Well the tax dollars aren't there any more," he said, pointing to how the city's industrial tax base has shrunk over the past fifty years.    

When it comes to a new arena, perhaps the city will also have to consider downsizing its plans, he said, referring to the proposed event centre, for which federal funding was denied in 2016. 

"The thing is it became a very grandiose plan ... a lot of these other [arenas] that I took a look at weren't that expensive, but they weren't also the economic driver that this was to be."

"So, do we scale down? ... or do we still look a little further in the future?"

Donna Gilhooly, Dave Siciliano and Tom Warden at the CBC Thunder Bay studio. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

'I just think it's time'

Lakehead University has long been invested in the plan for a new arena to house its Thunderwolves hockey program. School sports clubs have also been affected by the loss of the Sports Dome. 

"I think it's now time to do something for our young people, whether it be a new dome, whether it be a new event centre, whatever it might be, I just think it's time," said Tom Warden, athletics director for Lakehead University.

Warden said he'd like to see more help from the federal and provincial governments for projects that could improve quality of life. 

"Good lifestyle, legacy, civic pride, all those things are really tied into these type of buildings," he said. 

Soccer Northwest Ontario is advocating for an indoor soccer facility at Chapples Park. Thunder Bay's Recreation and Facilities Master Plan, as well as a master plan for Chapples, set out a vision for an indoor multi-use facility that would serve the soccer community at Chapples. (Josh Lynn/CBC)