The owners of the Rainbow Centre made their pitch Thursday for using the mall to house a new art gallery and library, a project they say would be 75 per cent cheaper than building new.
Amin Visram, CEO of Vista Hospitality, said the mall takes up about one-fifth of downtown Sudbury, and his company has been working hard since buying the building in 2001 to revive it.
"It was a very dormant centre," Visram said. "If you recall, this place was falling apart, it had a vacancy factor of almost 70-75 per cent. We took it upon ourselves ... to revitalize the core of the downtown core."
They have spent $30 million on facade improvement, and that doesn't include $12 million being spent restoring the garage. Having the library and art gallery would be a major step toward in boosting the mall, he said.
"A library and gallery would be extremely vital to the core of where we are,” he said. “Not the arena site, where we are. We have spent a lot of time, money and energy trying to convince the City of Sudbury that the perfect site is this site."
The mall can offer a host of amenities to library and gallery visitors, Visram said, things that would only add to the cost of both projects if they are built offsite.
"It's going to cost the taxpayers way more than it would when the synergies of operating facility are already there," he said.
The mall has also offered to offer rent at half the market rate, sign a very long-term lease or even negotiate the sale of space to the city.
"We have made that very clear to the city, and to the staff of the city," he said.
They were disappointed, he said, that the mall ranked so poorly in the city's site selection criteria, and Visram said he believes it's because there's pressure to find a new tenant for the downtown arena once it's vacant in 2020.
"We believe we have not been given the adequate due process we require in order to pick this site as the site," he said. "We believe staff has directed the arena to fit the criteria, versus taking the criteria, as delegated to them by council, and coming up with a factual objective situation."
However, city council has directed staff to find options to build the library, art gallery and the convention centre in one location, and that was the main reason Rainbow scored so low in the evaluation criteria.
Robert Green, Vista's manager for the arena/library project, said the original direction from the city was to find ways to house the library and art gallery in a single location. Changing that direction now would be unfair considering the amount of work the mall did based on that assumption.
"The original directive from council actually does segregate it into two projects," Green said. "Some people have drawn the conclusion that all three have to go together ... That does lead to a bigger conversation, and I think that conversation should be held in public. But it was originally a separate entity."
That conversation is the wisdom of building a $100 million arena events centre on the Kingsway, while also building a separate convention centre downtown.
"There have been op-eds in the paper recently that the Kingsway events centre, for example, is replicating or duplicating and events centre space in the downtown,” Green said. “Effectively, they'd be competing."
When asked whether he agreed with that assessment, he said he didn't want to give his personal opinion.
"I don't want to talk about that site, the Kingsway,” Green said. "The focus for us here is the library and the art gallery."
But he said taking advantage of the opportunity at the mall for the two projects would save tens of millions of dollars that could be used to repurpose the old area.
"We have approximately a $30 million savings that can be done here," Green said. "We can build out and renovate the space, for that 60,000 square feet (for both projects), at about $12 million to $15 million."
They received public support for their plan, Green said, with almost 2,000 emails sent in support to city councillors.
"We're the largest property of the downtown -- we're the engine of the downtown," he said. "We've had overwhelming, enthusiastic support for this."
"All we want to do is see the downtown flourish," Visram added.