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Editorial: Pool replacement needs a financial plan, not financial hopes

The most important question right now isn’t new pool or old pool, but how to pay for either.
closed norplex-pool stock photo
Nearly three years after the Norplex Pool was permanently closed down for safety reasons, the City of Thompson is about six per cent of the way to a replacement, based on the ratio of available funding to the total cost.

During a lengthy discussion Nov. 1 about thus far mostly hypothetical plans to build an aquatic facility to replace the Norplex Pool, permanently shut down nearly three years ago now, or the possibility of retrofitting the shuttered facility to make it usable once again, there was talk among councillors about needing a plan B. At this point, however, given that the city seems unlikely to receive federal-provincial infrastructure funding for the project, since it’s already received sizeable sums for road and water and sewer projects, can we even assume the existence of a plan A?

Based on the design and site location developed by Stantec, at a cost of about $1 million, a new pool that is roughly equivalent to the Norplex in terms of usable features, though not necessarily as accommodating to spectators, based on snippets of the design released by the City of Thompson Nov. 1 (the full design Stantec created is not yet available to the public who paid for it at large, though certain key demographics have been given private briefings about what progress has been made), is estimated to cost about $20 million, plus or minus 25 per cent, so somewhere between $15 and $25 million. The cost to refurbish the Norplex Pool was previously estimated at around $15 million, though as Coun, Jeff Fountain, the author of two resolutions regarding the pool at the Nov. 1 council meeting pointed out, even if a new pool is constructed, the old building needs to either be demolished or somehow repurposed, which will also cost money, though exactly how much is either undetermined or hasn’t been publicly revealed, or at least without much or any fanfare.

Basically, whichever route the city wants to take, new or retrofit, the primary problem is money, though the amount may vary greatly and be significantly higher if council sticks to the idea of a building something new. At it’s simplest, Thompson needs $20 million which it doesn’t have, though of course there are reserves and the ability to borrow. The latter option, however, would mean a one per cent property tax hike per million dollars borrowed for every year until the debt is repaid, according to information city manager Anthony McInnis provided at a public meeting shortly after the pool was closed down in February 2019. Obviously, the city wants to cover as much of the cost as it can through means other than borrowing and, so far, it only has about $1.2 million specifically set aside for a new pool.

The need for non-repayable funding was the reason the city applied for an Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program grant over two years ago, which doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. What is less certain is what thought was given over those two years to how to pay for a new pool if the grant application was unsuccessful. Apparently, it hasn’t been a lot, because no proposed financing plans have been mentioned publicly.

That the hoped-for opening date of summer 2022 put forth by the Swim North pool committee a few years ago is going to be missed is not surprising. The development of the Thompson Regional Community Centre took much longer than was initially anticipated, wasn’t as grand in scope as what had been envisioned and there were multiple speed bumps along the way. The difference is at least some of the amenities within the building were available at all times during construction. No one had to do without an arena for several years. On a brighter note, as the redevelopment moved forward, governments, Crown corporations and Vale, among others, stepped forward with sizeable donations, an indication that, if the city manages to come up with a plan for the lion’s share of the cost of building a new pool, there may be contributions forthcoming that will reduce the overall amount it has to spend and/or borrow.

When planning to buy a house, it is a common practice to shop around at banks and other financial institutions to figure out how big of a mortgage you are approved for prior to actually looking for the home you want to buy. The bulk of the city’s efforts with regard to the pool right now should be on figuring out how to pay for it. Other necessary work can still proceed while that happens, but establishing the financial foundation is the key step to moving this new pool plan forward. Pinning everything on something like a grant application, the success of wish you have no control over, is hoping, and hopes and plans are different. Planning to graduate from high school and hoping to graduate from high school have the same end goal but vary significantly in certainty.