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Mayor Bigger absent, council splits vote on Project Now proposal

Kingsway versus Downtown arena debate resurfaces as councillors push for a closer look at Project Now proposal
project_now
Project now

Tensions were high at Tuesday night's city council meeting, as the downtown arena versus Kingsway Entertainment District debate flared up once again.

With Mayor Brian Bigger absent from the Dec. 15 meeting, council votes were split down the middle at six votes apiece, defeating a members' motion brought forward by Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland and Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti that asked staff to take a closer look at a proposed downtown arena renovation.

Greater Sudbury city council got a closer look at Project Now on Oct. 6, despite opposition from some members of council to having representatives from 3rdLine.Studio come before council at all.

McCausland and Signoretti were behind the members' motion that brought Project Now to the attention of council as a whole and Tuesday's motion asked that the city's large projects steering committee take a deep dive into the details of the proposal.

Highlighted in the motion was a focus on having staff answer four questions, which later became five questions with Coun. McCausland asking that staff investigate as to whether the proposed downtown arena renovation would qualify for provincial and/or federal funding for energy-efficient retrofits to old buildings.

The four questions were:

  1. Will the Project Now plan result in a multi-function event centre suitable to the city’s needs as prescribed in the 2017 PWC report?
  2. Are the timelines associated with the Project Now plan feasible?
  3. What implications, if any, does the Project Now plan present that address the City’s ongoing plans to address downtown parking needs or the City’s other Large Projects?
  4. Is the cost structure of the Project Now plan reasonable for developing a clear understanding about the level of financing required for the plan’s full cost?

Debate on the motion was contentious, with councillors going through four rounds of questions and rebuttals before ultimately splitting the vote at 6-6, meaning the motion was defeated. 

In  similar fashion to the 2017 vote that saw council approve the Kingsway Entertainment District, a motion on a downtown arena was defeated by a tie vote, with one member absent; Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier declared a conflict of interest in the 2017 vote and Mayor Brian Bigger was absent on Tuesday night.

McCausland and Signoretti for the most part stuck to their guns when speaking in favour of the motion, hammering on points they had made in past meetings when discussing the Project Now proposal.

"This motion seeks to draw out more information and address this idea and plan," said McCausland. "It's to identify if there actually is $40 million to be save, it's comparing apples to apples and so that we can dispell the myth out there that we didn't give this plan the time of day."

Signoretti echoed many of McCausland's comments, stating that council would be remiss to not look for savings.

"We need to be looking for savings...regardless of LPAT or other projects, the world we're living in today we'd be remiss not to look for these savings," said Signoretti.

Ward 7 Coun. Mike Jakubo was not on board with the comments of McCausland, saying that comparing a renovation to a new build is not apples to apples, while noting the process that council has gone through to get to where they are with the KED.

"I'm not willing to go back on all of that," said Jakubo. "I don't see it as apples to apples, new is not the same as a renovation."

Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc took issue with comments from McCausland that the staff report would come at no cost to the city.

"I can't support this motion, they can't tell us (all we need to know) without doing a geo-technical survey," said Leduc.

One of council's most vocal supporters of the Kingsway Entertainment District, Ward 5 Coun. Robert Kirwan was mostly reserved in his comments Tuesday night, instead asking what it would mean if council were to pass the motion, and if the city would be tied to entering into a contract with Project Now in the future.

City clerk Eric Labelle explained that should council decide to proceed with a downtown arena renovation somewhere down the road, that the city's procurement policy would have to be adhered to.

"We're not doing the proponents (Project Now) any favours with this," said Kirwan. "We're days away from getting a decision from LPAT, it's too late right now."

Debate drifted into Kingsway versus Downtown, with Gateway Casinos being brought into the conversation as well.

"We know some of our so-called partners are having problems, Gateway Casinos took $200 million to keep their buildings open, they pulled out of North Bay," said Signoretti. "Are we going to turn a blind eye to a potential $40 million savings?"

McCausland attempted to get the conversation back on track, steering toward the purpose of the motion.

"This is not about the merits of the KED, what is here in front of us now is to look at this proposal, is there $40 million?" said McCausland.

Montpellier demanded that he be allowed to read a letter that he had received from Gateway Casinos, but was met with a stop sign from Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann, who was chairing Tuesday's meeting in Mayor Bigger's absence.

Instead, Landry-Altmann called a 10-minute recess, asking that Montpellier email the letter to all members of council. 

When the meeting resumed, Montpellier explained that he wasn't at his office and couldn't email the letter and once again asked that he be allowed to read the letter and Landry-Altmann told the councillor that she did not believe it added anything to the motion that was on the table.

Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh questioned what the time investment for staff would be in order to complete the report that was being requested.

City CAO Ed Archer said that from discussions he and director of strategic initiatives and communications, Ian Wood, the two estimated that the report would require between 75 and 125 hours of staff time and "several hands and a coordinated effort".

Landry-Altmann could not get behind that type of staff time commitment with a decision from the LPAT possible any time now, offering that the motion be deferred until after the city received the decision.

"The Project Now proposal with a parking lot, which you can now see on their website, is around $105 million," said Landry-Altmann, adding that she wasn't comfortable with omitting other architecture firms from making pitches just because Project Now was first out of the gate. 

With the meeting approaching the three-hour mark, Ward 6 Coun. René Lapierre put somewhat of a halt on the discussion that was set to enter round five of questions, asking that the question be called on the motion.

When the dust settled, the vote was split at six votes apiece, defeating the motion.

Voting in favour were: Mark Signoretti, Gerry Montpellier, Geoff McCausland, René Lapierre, Deb McIntosh and Fern Cormier. 

Opposed were: Michael Vagnini, Robert Kirwan, Mike Jakubo, Al Sizer, Bill Leduc, Joscelyne Landry-Altmann. 

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