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City Explores Premiere Entertainment complex

February 23, 2015

Accent: Multipurpose space touted for city’s core

By Laura Stricker, Sudbury Star

Going back to the 1970s, people with grand visions of what Sudbury could be have attempted to bring those plans to life.

In 1978, Sudbury 2001 was created with the goal of making the city self-sustaining by the turn of the century. With funding from the provincial government, its members attempted to start new businesses, help existing businesses expand and create a variety of community projects. In 1986, Sudbury 2001 dissolved, having been tarred and feathered as the result of an unsuccessful project.

More recently, in 2008, former mayor John Rodriguez envisioned a $50-million performing arts centre and a $60-million multi-use recreation centre, as well as a $65-million Maley Drive extension and $30 million worth of road resurfacing.

Those projects crashed and burned too, the result of lack of detail and rationale, as well as concerns over operating costs and where the money to build everything would come from.

Now, John Caruso is hoping the third time will be the charm.

In 2010, Caruso, the executive director of Community Living Manitoulin, co-chaired a community adjustment committee established due to layoffs at Xstrata and Vale.

“We entered into some consultations across the city to talk about identifying strategies that could be used to mitigate the impact of these lost jobs. That was the purpose of the exercise. As we did that, a number of ideas were put on the table, and a recurring one was the need for a multipurpose space in the downtown core.”

That same year, the City of Greater Sudbury Community Adjustment Committee did a pre-feasibility study to determine if such a centre was needed, and would do well in, the city.

“The results of that were positive, so we used that as the rationale to keep going,” Caruso said.

Now, he’s on a volunteer committee of the Sudbury Community Foundation to study in more depth the practicality of building one, bolstered by a recent $50,000 contribution from FedNor. The city and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture also kicked in $50,000 each for the study. He hopes to have the study finished by springtime.

Mayor Marianne Matichuk has been vocal about her desire to bring a multipurpose centre to the city, saying last year local organizations can’t expand without a place to hold large conferences.

But with a multitude of failed attempts to establish so-called legacy projects in Greater Sudbury, will this effort be any different?

Caruso thinks so, for one simple reason: Past attempts all looked at the possibility of a single-use facility — a conference centre, a large theatre. This one would have multiple uses, making it more likely to firstly, get built, and secondly, be profitable.

“This one is not single purpose, that is the big difference,” he said. “This is all about creating a space that can meet a broad base of user needs.

“There’s all kinds of needs out there, but a city the size of Sudbury can’t build a building for each one of them. It’s not going to happen. If we can come up with a solution with one space that meets all of those needs, that’s the difference. That’s a huge difference from what anybody has ever done before.”

“That was a performing arts centre,” Matichuk said, explaining why she thinks a multipurpose centre is more in line with Sudbury’s needs, and different from what Rodriguez tried to do. “That is totally different. It did (get very big and expensive). That’s not where I come from.

“I’ve always said, if there’s an opportunity and it’s going to happen, private industry will look at doing something like that. They may need some support from the city as far as land. I can’t really say, but there are people that are interested in that type of business.”

She envisions the centre as a space that can be used during the week for speakers and conventions, in the evening for entertainers and shows and on the weekends for weddings and trade shows.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in this city where we haven’t been able to accommodate where conventions have come in, large groups — it could be anything from meetings to a convention, or a big dinner — we just do not have the facility to do that now. It needs to be a multi-use space, so that it can be multifunctional.”

In terms of financing, Matichuk said she’s in favour of a public-private partnership, with it being run privately. She wouldn’t specify if she has a location in mind for the centre, saying the results of the feasibility study will determine where is best.

Caruso, though, said he thinks downtown is the ideal place for it. Maureen Luoma, the executive director of Downtown Sudbury, agrees.

“I think certainly it would bring more people downtown, whether they’re visitors or local people taking part in whatever (the centre) would be hosting. I think it would also provide, not just for the downtown but for the community, another opportunity to attract visitors to the community and other out of town (things) — whether it’s shows, conferences, that we can’t accommodate now,” she said.

In the Rodriguez era, Darren Stinson chaired a volunteer advisory panel to develop plans for the multi-use recreation centre the former mayor wanted. The reason the proposal failed, he thinks, is because there was too much else going on.

“The primary issue surrounding the multi-use recreational complex and its failure to get going was, I think, twofold,” said Stinson.

“I think there was a significant concern with council at the time of the cost associated with the facility as recommended by the panel, and I think the other primary concern was it had been lumped together into an omnibus motion that included shave and pave of the roads to fix pothole issues. It also included (the) Maley Drive extension, as well as a performing arts centre.”

Confidential documents obtained by The Star in 2010 provide some clarity about why councillors voted against Rodriguez’s legacy projects.

“A number of the facility components are not consistent with what would typically be in a multi-use recreation facility,” said an independent review done by dmA Planning & Management Services. The report also said some of the plans were “not supported by a clear rationale.”

Around the same time city councillors voted against Rodriguez’s grand plans for Sudbury, in Windsor, they were getting ready to open a multipurpose centre with a community centre — including three ice pads and a gym — an arena that seats 6,000 people and rooms for weddings, banquets and meetings.

A LOOK AT WHAT WE COULD HAVE

The Windsor Family Credit Union Centre (WFCU) opened on Dec. 11, 2008. A $70-million, 330,000 square foot building, it took four years to get from the planning to the opening stage.

Though it has brought in performers that would not have come otherwise, such as Elton John, Blue Rodeo and Carrie Underwood it has not been as profitable as city staff had hoped, said the WFCU manager of events.

“(The city) had originally proposed a $300,000 surplus. We do operate at a loss at this point, anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000,” said Jason Toner.

It’s not all bad news though, he added. “We’ve been improving each year. I’d

say we see approximately a $50,000 decline in that loss each year. We are making grounds and the tourism industry is finally picking up, to a spot where there are opportunities for smaller venues like ours to get a good show.”

The way the WFCU is set up, the City of Windsor owns and operates the building. Global Spectrum was hired as a contractor to bring in big events to the arena, known as the main bowl.

“We do high school graduations in the facility, and we’ve had the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower convention,” Toner said. “We do really well with family events — Disney Live, The Wiggles, Scooby Doo Live. Cirque Du Soleil is a big player in our marketplace, they come by yearly for a week-long show. On top of that, we try and bring in the large-scale sporting events. Last year, we had in two Skate Canada events. They took a week each time — the synchronized skating championships, which were Canada-wide, and then we had Skate Canada International.”

It’s taking some time for WFCU to turn a profit, Toner guesses, because the centre opened during a bad economic period, in a city that was hit especially hard. Despite that, he believes it’s been hugely beneficial to the city.

“It’s become a cultural hub, a hub for entertainment — which is what they were striving for. It’s also in a great area. It’s reachable not only by the city in terms of geography, but also from the entire Essex County.”

laura.stricker@sunmedia.ca Twitter: @LauraStricker

– With files from The Sudbury Star. Read Accent every Saturday.