Ontario Place redevelopment plans shrouded in secrecy. Here’s what we know

Click to play video: 'Secrecy surrounds Ford government’s Ontario Place plans'
Secrecy surrounds Ford government’s Ontario Place plans
WATCH ABOVE: As questions loom over the future of Ontario place, a grassroots group tried to force the government to hand over the details. Their efforts, however, were denied by the Ontario government. Global’s Queen’s Park Bureau Chief Colin D’Mello reports. – Apr 25, 2023

Key new details are emerging about the Ford government’s controversial plans for Ontario Place — including new information on the 95-year contract and the business case on the Science Centre relocation — even as the province attempts to shield information from the public.

The Ford government faced repeated calls to publicly present both the contract with the Therme Group, which plans to open a mega-spa and waterpark on the Ontario Place west island, and the business case used to justify a decision to move the Ontario Science Centre.

In both cases, however, the requests have either been met with silence or rejections.

Attempts to access the contract with Therme

Ontario Place for All, a self-styled grassroots organization fiercely opposed to the Ford government’s plans to open a private spa on public provincial lands, filed a freedom of information request to get hold of the contract with Therme.

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“We want to see what we are giving up our waterfront for,” said Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of Ontario Place for All. “I want to know what’s in it for Ontarians.”

Instead, access to the lease between the two parties was denied by provincial officials, who argued that its release could be harmful and “injurious” to the economic interests of Ontario, reveal private third-party information and violate solicitor-client privilege.

“Any request that we’ve asked for, for documents pertaining to the mega spa has been denied.” Di Pasquale said. “From questions about animal bird species that are here, the lease, the original strategic conservation plan — the answer from the Ontario government has been no.”

When Ontario Place for All asked for studies of wildlife and plants in the area, freedom-of-information officials denied the request citing the risk of “damaging or destroying the habitat of a species” if the local studies were released.

The group is in the process of appealing the decision.

Click to play video: 'Evaluating the proposed Ontario Science Centre move'
Evaluating the proposed Ontario Science Centre move

Ontario agrees to pay for parking structure

Details around the deal between Ontario and the private company have been scarce.

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On Monday, Global News reported the two parties signed a 95-year lease, a timeline the company believes is necessary to recoup its investment of $350 million into its private building and $100 million into public space.

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In return, the Ford government agreed to pay for a five-level parking structure with 2,100 underground spaces and 630 surface spots that the province claims would be self-sustainable.

Global News has learned that internal estimates peg the price tag of the parking garage at between $300 and $600 million — but sources cautioned that inflation and supply chain issues could increase the final price.

While the province hasn’t publicly released the price tag, the government has previously said parking revenue will offset those costs in the long-term.

Cost of accessing a private spa

In an interview with Global News, a representative from Therme confirmed that tickets to the private water park and spa are set to cost around $40 when the park is projected to open in 2027.

A spokesperson said tickets for Ontario Place cost around $30 when it closed in 2012, arguing that admission was reasonable when inflation is factored in.

The private spa has also floated the idea of “special programing days” that would make it an “affordable, inclusive destination” and other ways to make it more accessible to the local community and fight the perception it is an exclusive, luxury spa.

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Aside from those minor entry details and recently released renderings, critics say the public has been shut out of understanding how the deal for a private company to operate a key piece of public land was struck.

Questions sent to the Ford government have been batted away with pre-written statements.

Click to play video: 'Ford says ‘no public money’ in deal with Therme, acknowledges parking garage could cost taxpayers'
Ford says ‘no public money’ in deal with Therme, acknowledges parking garage could cost taxpayers

Justification for Science Centre relocation

A recently-announced decision to move the Ontario Science Centre from its home at Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue to Ontario Place has been similarly shrouded in secrecy.

Ontario’s infrastructure minister, Kinga Surma, claims the Science Centre is “falling apart” and said a provincial business case determined it would be cheaper for the province to raze the entire structure and build a new Science Centre at Ontario place.

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Global News asked the Ford government to release the business case, but did not receive a response six days after asking.

Government officials, with first-hand knowledge of the business case, told Global News that the move could save hundreds of millions of dollars over a 50-year planning horizon.

The long timespan was key, sources said, because the business case indicated the savings would accumulate over time — and the savings of moving from the current site when measured year-to-year would be significantly less pronounced.

Click to play video: 'Exclusive new details emerge about Ford government’s Ontario Place redevelopment plan'
Exclusive new details emerge about Ford government’s Ontario Place redevelopment plan

The business case also examined the size and location of the new Science Centre.

The new space at Ontario Place will be as much as 50 per cent smaller than the current Don Mills and Eglinton space.

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That may not be apparent to the public, however, because much of the current building is devoted to office space and workshops used to assemble or build exhibits.

With the potential to move those functions elsewhere, the public space at the Ontario Science Centre’s new home is likely to be larger, a source said, citing the business case. 

The business case also included other locations where the science centre could have moved, according to one source. Internally, however, the understanding was that Ontario Place was always the preferred destination.

Speaking in the legislature, Surma said that the attractions at Ontario Place — including the science centre and spa — were being welcomed by many.

“They want to bring their families there, they want to bring people who are visiting the city there, they want it to be a place of economic development, a wonderful place for families,” she said, answering a question from the Ontario NDP.

“This site now, with the plans that we showed last week, will have something for everyone to enjoy.”

Growing calls for transparency

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles has previously called on the government to reveal the business case that was relied on to support the relocation.

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“I want the government to share with us exactly where they’re coming up with these plans, who was consulted, who had a say and who stands to benefit,” Stiles told reporters at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.

“I want to see you know the costs associated with this. I want to know when and where this was concocted and who was at the table,” Stiles added.

On Monday, she also called for the Ford government to release its contract with Therme.

Liberal MPP Adil Shamji, whose Don Valley East riding includes the current Science Centre, said he doesn’t believe the government’s business case would argue against a renovation.

“At its peak, the Ontario Science Centre has had, I think, 1.2 or 1.3 million visits a year,” Shamji said. “That number is only going to increase as two (transit) lines cross and intersect there. The number of visits is only going to go up.”

Shamji’s office has started a petition, collecting signatures to oppose the move.

Click to play video: 'Global News at 5:30 Toronto: April 24, 2023'
Global News at 5:30 Toronto: April 24, 2023

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