The Ford government budgeted more than $2 million to promote its controversial redevelopment of Ontario Place as public criticism mounted earlier in the year, Global News can reveal.
Officials with the Ministry of Infrastructure set aside the money to run an online, radio, television and billboard campaign from May “to raise awareness about the government’s vision for Ontario Place.”
The total budget for the advertising campaign was pegged at $1.99 million plus tax and ran for eight weeks.
“The campaign will inform people of the redevelopment plan that will provide them with access to more public benefits and a range of new entertainment options,” one line explaining the campaign’s goals said.
The government is in the midst of a redevelopment of the waterfront area that will see a private spa occupy most of the west island, while the area’s performance venue will also be revamped.
In the spring, the province announced it would also move the Ontario Science Centre into the redevelopment, alongside a parking garage worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A series of documents obtained by Global News through freedom of information laws show the plan was set in motion “in response to some early negative sentiment toward limited aspects of the plan.”
A spokesperson for Minister of Infrastructure Kinga Surma said most people visiting Ontario Place were currently only headed to the music venue.
“By raising awareness about our plan to bring Ontario Place back to life, we continue to show transparency and progress on this important project that will deliver over 50 acres of free public spaces, beaches, and parks for everyone to enjoy,” they said.
The $2 million-plus budget for the Ford government’s Ontario Place advertising campaign makes it more expensive than several other public campaigns paid for by officials in the past year.
The auditor general found, for example, that the province spent $280,000 promoting cervical cancer screenings in the 2022-2023 year. It spent $690,000 sharing advice on winter driving and $1.1 million pushing out more general cancer screening messages.
The documents do not detail which parts of the province’s plan had felt the brunt of that negative feeling. Advocacy groups like Ontario Place for All, however, have directed the brunt of their criticism at the plan to build a private spa on the land.
The group, which also obtained the advertising campaign data through its own freedom of information request, said the spending amounted to “corporate welfare” from the Ford government.
“The government has so far spent $2 million in advertising to smooth over the disastrous redevelopment plans for Ontario Place with the public,” Ontario Place for All co-chair Norm Di Pasquale said.
“As a grassroots organization, we have no way to compete with that sort of money to get our message out and find it offensive that taxpayer money is used to drown out our message.”
The Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation Jay Goldberg said the Ford government “wastes too much money.”
In a statement, he said: “Spending millions on this kind of advertising sends a terrible message to Ontario families who are barely making ends meet. This kind of wasteful spending needs to end.”
In April, Global News revealed the Ford government had entered into a 95-year lease with Austrian spa company Therme, allowing them to run their private space on crown lands for almost a century.
Ford government’s parking obligations
Ontario’s auditor general also revealed Wednesday that the province is legally obligated to provide dedicated parking spaces to the private occupants on Ontario Place.
The government contract with Therme, the Austrian-based company planning a spa and family water park on the west island, stipulated that the dedicated parking must be within 650 metres of the entrance of the private business.
Failure to provide the parking, the contract stated, could result in financial penalties.
While Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma refused to provide the number of parking spaces the province would earmark for Therme, Global News has learned the province is also obligated to provide parking to a second private tenant at Ontario Place.
According to the 2019 call for development, obtained by Global News, the terms of the lease the province signed with Live Nation Entertainment include provisions for parking.
Live Nation “requires at least 1,200 parking spaces to be maintained” for the 16,000 seat Budweiser Stage.
The lease obligation meant that Live Nation would have near-exclusive access to the existing 1,270 surface parking spaces at Ontario Place.
The 2019 provincial document also suggested that the province had no plans to provide additional parking on the site.
“Participants should consider the adequacy of parking for their development concept,” the call for development said. “An additional 5,150 surface parking spaces and 1,300 underground spaces are available at Exhibition Place immediately north of the Site.”
The Ford government, however, appears to have changed its mind and promised to build a taxpayer-funded underground parking garage for 2,000 vehicles.
“A site-wide parking solution was needed to meet the Province’s existing legal obligations under the lease it had signed with Therme Group and for its potential lease obligations with Live Nation (pending approval of a final agreement), as well as to meet the needs of future tenants, such as the science centre,” the auditor’s report noted.
A high-level estimate of the parking structure pegged the cost at $307 million.