How a splashy new pool is dividing one northern Ontario city

Opposition is mounting over mayor’s plan to build a $48-million aquatic centre in Timmins
By Andrew Autio - Published on April 24, 2018
an artist rendering of a plan for a public pool in Timmins, Ontario
The proposed recreation centre would feature a waterslide, lazy river, spray features, and climbing structures. (City of Timmins)

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TIMMINS — In January, Sheena Cloutier started working as a lifeguard and instructor at the only public swimming pool in Timmins. It’s indoors at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex, which opened in 1979 and also includes an arena. The pool sees plenty of action, but many users find it cramped, outdated, and lacking modern amenities.

Cloutier has certainly noticed its deficiencies since she got her new job. “In that short time I see how crazy busy our pool is, and what it goes through. I also see how many problems there are with its age,” she said. “I think this city really needs this aquatic centre.”

She was referring to a controversial proposal to build a splashy new indoor pool for a city with long, cold winters. Its champion is Mayor Steve Black, who has persistently advocated for a modern indoor recreation complex for Timmins since he broke into local politics in 2010 as a city councillor.

The current plans call for a nearly 40,000-square-foot aquatic area with an eight-lane, 25-metre competitive pool, a large therapeutic hot pool, and a family-friendly play area complete with a waterslide, lazy river, spray features, and climbing structures. The proposal also includes a dryland training area featuring squash courts, a multi-purpose gymnasium, and an elevated walking track. The new facility would be built next to the old one, and then the original complex would be demolished.

Black says his latest cost estimate for the project is $45.7 million, $36 million of which would relate to construction costs. Consultants estimate the total costs at $48 million.

an indoor pool in Timmins, Ontario

Wherever the final cost could end up, local taxpayer advocates are already in revolt. The price tag is simply too big for Timmins to bite off on its own, and provincial and federal funding is not in place.

This has some in the community concerned. Among them is Logan McMeekin, president of the Timmins Taxpayers Association. “Even with upper-level funding, which seems unlikely, we do not think it is prudent to go ahead with this project considering we still haven't seen operational costs or any business plan,” she said.

Black struggled to maintain order at a community meeting in February, which was held to give community members a chance to ask questions of representatives of Perkins + Will, the firm hired for the schematic design of the facility. Around 50 people reportedly attended, roughly half in favour of the project and half against; the Timmins Daily Press reported that a “brief but passionate shouting match” broke out between the two groups. 

Black said he understands some people’s hesitation, but he’s hopeful that Timmins will be able to secure funding in the gathering wave of infrastructure spending across Canada that the federal government announced in the 2016 budget. “When you hear of a $45-million dollar price tag on a capital infrastructure program, it has some shock to it,” Black said. “I think there's a lot of fear about a massive tax increase because it’s such a large project. That's not going to be the case.”

The local business community isn't ready to dip its toes in the water, however. In February, the Timmins Chamber of Commerce asked its members if they would support the city bearing 50 percent of the project costs, with the other half coming from fundraising and higher levels of government. Fifty-six per cent said no, citing the high cost of the aquatic centre, the uncertain economy, and the lack of public consultation in the earlier stages of the project.

“The fact that the business community is not supporting it should be a huge red flag,” McMeekin said.

However, the scenario in the chamber of commerce poll wasn’t the one Black has been putting forward. The mayor has been working with the assumption that the federal government would pick up 40 per cent of the cost and the province 30 per cent, leaving the city to pay for the remaining 30 per cent. “If you can get a $45-million project for a [roughly] $15-million dollar cost to the community, I think … the city needs to find a way to make it work,” Black said.

Still, that federal and provincial funding hasn’t come through; Black noted that the 10-year federal infrastructure program is “back-end loaded,” with a large portion of the money to be spent in the latter years. Complicating matters is the provincial election on June 7, which has the project team keeping a close eye on each party's platforms.

Meanwhile, Black said he is “not overly concerned” with the opposition that the project has faced since an initial feasibility study in 2015. The mayor believes residents will warm up to the aquatic centre once the operational cost details are made public, and he feels many of the vocal opponents would be opposed to any public pool, regardless of the cost or details.

With regard to everyone else, Black said, “I think all of the communities in northern Ontario understand and appreciate that indoor rec facilities are a key [amenity], given our year-round climate.” As well, he noted, “quality of life is very important in attracting people to our communities.”

In a letter supporting the project, NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) agreed, adding: “It is high time that we saw a closing of the investment gap between northern Ontario and the south, and much-needed social infrastructure like an aquatic centre is an excellent place to start.”

The city expects preparatory design and engineering work to be completed by June, and the mayor hopes to put out a tender for construction contracts this summer — that is, if he can secure funding from the higher levels of government.

Black reckons that will be the only way he’ll be able to secure enough votes for the aquatic centre at city council, which has been as divided as Timmins itself over the pool issue.

“The contingent for most, if not all, of council is that we receive some funding from the provincial government and federal government before we're able to move this project forward.”

Andrew Autio is a freelance journalist based in Timmins.

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