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Province releases Ontario Science Centre business case. Here’s what it says

Click to play video: 'Ford government releases business case for moving the science centre.'
Ford government releases business case for moving the science centre.
WATCH: A business case has been prepared by the provincial government to consider moving the Ontario Science Centre from Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue to Ontario Place. Colin D'Mello has the story – Nov 29, 2023

The current home of the Ontario Science Centre is facing more than $300 million in “critical” maintenance and repairs, a provincial analysis suggests.

The figure is part of a business case prepared by the provincial government to consider the idea of moving the key city attraction from Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue to Ontario Place.

The document describes the current site as having an “operational crisis” with a need to close it for an indefinite period of time for repairs, as well as a decrease in attendance.

“The OSC at Don Mills is not sustained under status quo conditions and is in operational crisis due to a failing structure with mounting critical building maintenance costs, long term trend in declining attendance, declining revenues, and stagnant operating subsidies,” the report said.

In 2022, Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma asked civil servants to prepare a business case exploring whether it was better to repair the science centre at its current site or move it to Ontario Place.

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The analysis suggested that keeping it at the current site would even out at a cost of $1.3 billion over 50 years, compared with $1.05 billion over 50 years to move it to Ontario Place.

The report suggested a saving of roughly $257 million over 50 years — or an average of $5 million per year.

A smaller site

The Ontario Science Centre will shrink by around 50 per cent when it moves to Ontario Place, the report suggests. That will mean 35 staff positions will no longer be needed.

The business case suggests that modern museums require less space than older versions and that a new science centre on the waterfront would “operate more functionally and efficiently” than the current building.

Part of the smaller cost will be solved by moving the workshop where exhibits are made and maintained to another location away from the site.

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The business case suggests that even though the overall site will be 50 per cent smaller, the new science centre would “dedicate the same net square footage for permanent exhibition space.”

The report suggests 275,700 square feet is the smallest space that could fit all the “core programming” the science centre needs to meet its mandate.

The new location and space are not likely to negatively impact the visitor experience, Dov Goldstein of Lord Cultural Resources said during the presentation.

“You’ve got a clustering effect if you’re down at Ontario Place,” he explained.

“It’s not just the experience along with the exhibitions and programming that happen at the Ontario Science Centre but part of the all the other things  that are going to happen as part of an overall visit to Ontario Place.”

He said exhibition space at the relocated venue would not suffer.

To include an immersive experience, the province would need to find an extra 3,000 square feet and around $5 million.

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Adding an adventure park would cost up to $39 million. And a planetarium could cost the province $38.5 million.

A facility to build and maintain new exhibits, known as a fabrication facility and included in the current Ontario Science Centre building, is not part of the business case. It would cost the province up to $690,000 per year to add one if it can find a site, the report said.

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Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said she did not believe the business case made a compelling argument to move the science centre.

She questioned the 50-year-planning horizon cost savings were estimated over, saying it was a “guestimate” by the government.

“I look at this and my conclusion is this business case is nothing more than just a 78-page shell game just to justify this government’s scheme to build a luxury spa at Ontario Place,” she said.

“I think it raises more questions than answers.”

How we got here

As the Ford government sought to return Ontario Place to its former glory, the province partnered with three companies that would turn the waterfront destination into a year-round tourist attraction.

The three companies were: an Austrian-based spa and waterpark owned by Therme Group; a concert venue run by LiveNation and an all-seasons adventure park operated by Montreal-based Ecorecreo Group, which later pulled out.

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The province then conducted a business case on the existing Ontario Science Centre, which the government later claimed had fallen into disrepair.

“The structure itself has deteriorated,” Surma claimed last April. “It is falling apart.”

The province chose not to release the business case for months after the announcement was made.

Freedom of information requests filed by several media outlets, including Global News, were deferred several times from the spring until mid-September.

At that point, the government failed to meet its own extended-release deadline and failed to provide a new date when it might meet its obligations to release the document.

The eventual release of the document comes after several outlets, including Global News, filed appeals with the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Surma said in the spring the plan to relocate the science centre was years in the making.

“Which is why our government for the last number of years has been looking at whether or not the option of relocation to preserve the science centre should take place,” Surma said.

The infrastructure minister was not available to take questions after the business case was released.

Officials from Infrastructure Ontario said on Wednesday that the Ford government was not the first to consider moving the science centre from its current location to Ontario Place.

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They said that in 2016 the Liberal government had commissioned a similar study which had come to the same conclusion.

Another wrinkle in the plan

Even before construction begins, a new complication could be taking shape.

As part of the Ford government’s new deal with the City of Toronto, the province promised to revisit the location of a taxpayer-funded parking garage that was set to be built under the new science centre.

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow offered the ground of the city-owned Exhibition Place as a potential new site for the underground parking lot — a location Premier Doug Ford seemed to agree with.

As part of the initial request for proposals, however, Infrastructure Ontario said “the underground parking structure will be delivered under the same design-build-finance-maintain contract” as the new Ontario Science Centre.

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“The new facility will consist of a new building with multi-story, underground parking, located on the mainland and a retrofit of the existing heritage pod and Cinesphere complex,” the position said.

The removal of the parking structure from those plans could send the province and bidders back to the drawing board, further delaying the Ford government’s redevelopment of Ontario Place.

Michael Lindsay, the president and CEO of Infrastructure Ontario, said the location of the parking lot was still “being discussed” between two levels of government.

“I think we’re still debating precisely that question,” Lindsay said when asked if the underground parking garage and new science centre would be bundled together in some form when they are built.

“(There is a) back and forth that is happening between two levels of government about parking and where it could be located to serve Ontario Place and Exhibition. But you’re right, it is accurate to say that one of the options we’re looking at is the possibility of integration between the two.”

What happens with the existing site

The future of the existing Ontario Science Centre site also remains unclear.

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While Ford had mused about converting the property into a community centre or using the land for affordable housing, the city immediately asserted its rights over the space.

While the facility itself is owned and operated by the province, the land on which the science centre sits is owned by Toronto and leased to the province for a period of 99 years.

On Monday, Chow noted the province agreed to partner with the municipality to create a secondary science centre of sorts, allowing the city to maintain programming at the site.

The business case, however, includes detailed discussions of the potential value of the land at Don Mills and Eglinton.

One section of the report suggests that breaking the lease early and returning the land to the city of Toronto to potentially build on or sell creates “a compelling opportunity, for mutual benefit for both the province and the city,” citing “land value capture” opportunities.

The timeline and details of that new venture remain unknown.

Click to play video: 'Ford government releases business case for moving the science centre.'
Ford government releases business case for moving the science centre.

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