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An aerial view of Ontario Place in Toronto. (CNW Group/Ontario Place/CNW Group/Ontario Place)
An aerial view of Ontario Place in Toronto. (CNW Group/Ontario Place/CNW Group/Ontario Place)

ADAM RADWANSKI

Ontario Place: How a beacon to the world became a white elephant Add to ...

By the standards of government communications, as we know them today, it was downright poetic.

“Ontario Place is Ontario,” the advertisement in the Nov. 10, 1970, edition of The Globe and Mail proclaimed. “It will show us and the world where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going.”

If we’re going to be honest, even in its heyday the lakeside complex never did quite live up to those lofty dreams. It was a great place to see a concert, at least back in the era of the quaint little Forum and its revolving stage. It offered a unique movie-going experience, until commercial chains put in Imax theatres of their own. It had bumper boats and a waterslide and a “punching bag forest,” which all held a certain magic for kids. None of this really made it the beacon to the world – Toronto’s answer to Expo 67 – that its creators envisioned.

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But there was something noble about those ambitions. And there is something depressing about how they ultimately panned out: the provincial government of the day announcing Wednesday that it’s indefinitely shutting most of Ontario Place’s current operations, because it’s tired of losing $20-million a year.

This is what it’s come down to for a province $16-billion in the hole, scratching and clawing for any dollar it can save. Rob Ford, the hawkish mayor of Toronto, likes to talk about keeping things we “need to have,” while letting go of ones that are just “nice to have.” Dalton McGuinty’s provincial Liberals don’t speak quite as bluntly, but with the odd exception – an ongoing investment in the Pan Am Games – they increasingly find themselves forced to embrace a similar philosophy.

Under the financial circumstances, even setting aside what a drop in the bucket $20-million is, it’s hard to blame them. But the tough decisions forced by today’s limitations are a reminder of the opportunities squandered in times when it was possible to keep dreaming a little bigger. And Ontario Place is a prime example of that, particularly for the way it represents the stunted development of the province’s biggest city.

At the time of its construction, Ontario Place was reportedly mocked in some corners as “Toronto Place.” And indeed, it seems as much as anything else to have been about bringing life to the city’s waterfront. But subsequent governments, federal as well as provincial, have been wary of incurring backlashes in places where Toronto is seen as too privileged already. When they have moved forward anyway, it’s often been tentatively and a little half-heartedly.

Back in the late 1960s, then-premier John Robarts could talk about letting “your imagination run wild,” while signing off on a development plan that involved a pair of man-made islands. More recently, he would have been laughed at.

So Ontario Place was allowed to languish, going from a successful attraction to a white elephant, because government neither invested nor found creative ways to entice others to do so. The waterfront around it has (to be generous) developed in fits and starts, with endlessly discussed improvements taking forever to get off the ground. Meanwhile, the “nice-to-have”/”need-to-have” line is blurred by a public-transit system nowhere near what one would expect in the populous financial capital of an affluent country.

The happy caveat is that these and other failings haven’t prevented Toronto from growing in some fairly spectacular ways since Ontario Place first opened its gates. An influx of newcomers has helped make it an infinitely more vibrant place than it once was, while entrepreneurship and energy and ambition have revitalized many of its neighbourhoods.

Thankfully, that advertisement from 40-plus years ago no longer holds up. Ontario Place isn’t us; it doesn’t show people who we are and where we’re going. That’s because, like some other spaces and services left to government’s charge, it hasn’t kept pace with the society around it.

It’s perhaps fitting, or at least a little poignant, that former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory has been pegged to try to figure out what to do with Ontario Place now. Few public figures have closer ties to the party of the late Mr. Robarts and Bill Davis, who was premier when Ontario Place opened in 1971.

“I want it to be excellent,” Mr. Tory said Wednesday, “a people place, something that will help to create jobs and enrich the cultural and social fabric of Toronto and takes advantage of what is a jewel of a location.”

It sounded a little like that old think-big optimism. But there’s much lost time to make up for. And in today’s world of government, letting your imagination run wild is a much less enticing prospect.

How do you think Ontario Place should be revitalized? Share your vision at tgam.ca/ontarioplace

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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