Tonawanda approves first step in $20 million recreation growth

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A major $20 million expansion of recreational facilities at two Town of Tonawanda parks took an important first step this week.

Tonawanda City Council on Monday night hired a city-based company to demolish the pool at Brighton Park and begin work on the long-discussed recovery plan.

The board members voted to pay Montante Construction, the lowest bidder, $4.7 million for the contract. The city plans to use federal stimulus aid to fund this initial work, which includes the start of construction of a replacement ice arena in Brighton.

“These costs relate to the demolition of the pool and associated site work, as well as the construction of much of the arena,” Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said Monday night. “This is one of approximately 10 bids that we will be sending out for this project. As such, there will be more bids and approvals to proceed with this renewal project.”

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City officials had reinstated plans in March to build a new, larger ice arena and spray park at Brighton Park and to convert Lincoln Park’s aging ice rink into a sports ground house.

The new proposal also included pickleball pitches, a field for soccer and rugby, and a beach volleyball pitch – expanding outdoor leisure space to a plan that had stalled two years earlier over cost concerns.

In a further amendment to the proposal, the City no longer plans to keep the existing ice rink in Brighton once the new ice rink is built in the park.

The project is supported by the city’s youth hockey community, whose members said Tonawanda desperately needs updated ice rinks to replace arenas at Brighton and Lincoln parks, which are over 60 years old and too small to host hockey tournaments.

Critics at the time cited a price tag that had risen to $13 million and lamented the loss of the Brighton Park pool.

After withdrawing the proposal in 2020, Emminger said earlier this year that the city and its Department of Youth, Parks and Recreation are better positioned to tackle a project with an estimated cost that is now $20 million has reached.

Why is the project more financially feasible even though the price has increased?

For one, the city will provide about $8 million in federal Covid-19 aid to the project, Emminger said.

Second, the new ice arena, field house and spray park will bring in additional revenue to help meet the city’s borrowing costs, he said.

The contract, which was approved by City Council on Monday, will see Montante demolish Brighton Park’s full-size pool and paddling pool, carry out the necessary site work and begin construction of the replacement ice arena.

In this initial phase, Montante will erect the building envelope and roof, as well as install the plumbing and some other interior fixtures — about 40% of the required arena work, Emminger said.

The estimated cost of building and equipping the arena is approximately $10 million of the total project cost of $20 million.

Emminger said work on the initial phase should begin in the spring and the entire project is expected to be completed by 2024.

Fixed an issue that could hold up the project. A US$79,000 state land and water grant used to refurbish the Brighton Pool in the mid-1980s limited future changes to the pool site.

However, the city has received approval to proceed with the demolition of the pool and construction of the spray park and ice rink. The State Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation and the National Park Service agreed that changing from a pool to a spray park does not significantly change the use of the site and that building a covered ice rink is acceptable.

That letter didn’t satisfy a die-hard critic of the recreation expansion, Peter Hojczyk, who regularly attends city council meetings to ask pointed questions of Emminger and other city officials about the feasibility of the project.

Hojczyk said only Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior – and not the Parks Service official who signed the letter – can give permission for the pool to be demolished. Emminger rejected this argument.

Hojczyk and Emminger have raised their voices at each other at past meetings when they argued over the rules for the public comment portion of meetings, and since Hojczyk has protested, the city council is not fully answering his questions about the recreation project.

“It’s not going to be factual what you’re going to say,” Hojczyk told Emminger on Monday. “This is going to be a spin.”

In response to Hojczyk’s complaints, Emminger later explained why he insisted on waiting until Hojczyk had asked all of his questions before answering them all at once.

“This is not a solicitor affidavit where we’re going to go back and forth with one another and in an adversarial manner,” Emminger said. “So let’s act, this councilman acts with proper decency. And as long as residents show up and act with proper decency, we will be more than happy to answer any questions that are brought to our attention.”