Tennis bubble faces deadlines for 2023 opening

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The group behind a new, six-court indoor tennis bubble at Chapples Park still hopes to serve up an opening in 2023, but will first need to finalize several agreements with the city.

THUNDER BAY — The group behind a new indoor tennis facility at Chapples Park remains optimistic it could serve up an opening in 2023, but faces looming deadlines in achieving that goal.

City council gave its blessing to the Thunder Bay Community Tennis Centre’s concept for a six-court bubble in May 2022.

Over a year later, the group is still finalizing key agreements with the city that must be in place before construction begins.

Those include a ground lease and a funding agreement necessary to release the $1.5 million the city committed to the project, making up nearly half its budget.

The tennis centre says it remains hopeful it can open the bubble in 2023, but acknowledged that’s a best-case scenario.

“We have still a really good shot at getting things completed this year — probably a little bit later start for the indoor season, as it’s turning out,” said project lead Pasi Pinta. “There have been challenges along the way that we’ve been working through.”

The organization recently released a call for tenders on a construction package that includes site preparation, construction of the courts, underground services, and drainage.

Bids for that work, which will prepare the site for installation of a pre-engineered air-supported structure, are due in the next week.

The tennis centre has already purchased the bubble structure using FedNor funding received in 2022 that had to be spent by this year.

The club is aiming to begin construction in September, Pinta said, with work expected to take roughly a month-and-a-half.

Before any of that can happen, however, city council must ratify a ground lease and funding agreement for the facility.

The tennis centre is aiming for an Aug. 28 meeting to receive that approval.

Kelly Robertson, the city’s general manager of community services, agreed the two parties are working toward that target, but said hitting it remains uncertain.

“That’s a best-case scenario that’s contingent on the city receiving information, issues being resolved on the site, outstanding site servicing,” she said.

If the timeline slips from Aug. 28, it could push the project back to the 2024 construction season, she suggested.

“For the air-supported structure to be installed for this fall and have enough lead time to do the requisite construction, that’s kind of a date of no return. If we don’t make that date, it’s possible based on what I understand that installation will not proceed this fall.”

“Everyone’s working hard to see what we can do, but still quite a bit of work to do.”

Robertson said city staff are awaiting updated documentation from the tennis centre before they can bring a recommendation to council.

That documentation includes an updated site plan, draft operating budget, membership revenues and projections, a life-cycle renewal plan, and updated capital estimates based on the construction tenders received.

“The business plan does exist, but what the city has asked the tennis centre to do is provide current information,” Robertson said, referring to a 2020 business case study the group commissioned from the JF Group.

“We’re going to look at the updated business plan information as well as the draft operating budget, because the city wants to make sure the tennis centre is going to be successful and be able to sustain their operations with the new indoor facility.”

Negotiations on a lease agreement for use of the city lands at Chapples Park — required for the project to secure a building permit — are still ongoing, she added.

The tennis centre’s use of existing outdoor courts at Chapples is set out in a 1993 letter of understanding with the city.

The group is expected to pick up more significant costs under the new lease.

“The premise underlying the Thunder Bay Community Tennis Centre’s indoor project is that it’s their project. They have to cover fully all of the capital, all of the operating expenses, and build in some contribution to life-cycle renewal,” Robertson said.

The city is working with Synergy North to upgrade electrical power at the site, work she said could unfold in September.

Robertson also called provision of water to support fire suppression requirements an outstanding issue.

The 2020 business case study pegged the project’s cost at $3 million, but Pinta said inflation has likely driven that higher.

The club has raised around $3.5 million in total so far, he reported.

“I know we’re going to be right tight against those numbers with how things are going,” he said. “We’re hoping for healthy competition and fair prices as the bids come in for what’s remaining.”

The 2020 business case suggested the tennis centre would need to attract between 450 and 600 members “to maximize prime time court utilization,” as well as non-members who would book non-prime-time hours.

The group’s current seasonal summer membership numbers are in that range, Pinta reported, topping 500 again after a dip during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He’s confident the group will attract a similar number of members for indoor tennis through the winter.

“The sport is extremely healthy, we have full courts,” he said. “We serve a wide swath of the entire community and we’re very excited about the popularity of the sport, as well as pickleball. Pickleball will have a key portion in this new facility.”

The facility will offer daytime hours for up to 16 pickleball players at a time, using a flexible tennis court that can be converted to four pickleball courts.

Credit TO Owner