The Toronto Raptors have received the go-ahead from city council to build a practice facility at Exhibition Place in a vote that saw Mayor Rob Ford take up a familiar role as a dissenting voice against his council colleagues.
The vote, taken on the first day of what is expected to be a marathon council meeting, the last before this fall’s municipal election, approved a deal that will see team owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment build a $30-million facility on the city-owned site. The city will own the building and MLSE will cover the operating cost and lease the facility for 20 years. The Raptors will have exclusive rights to use two-thirds of the complex, with time set aside for “community use,” and use by permit through the city’s parks department.
Those terms did not sit well with the mayor, who tried unsuccessfully to introduce last-minute changes to the deal at council on Monday, which would have meant asking MLSE to consider earmarking a portion of the community time for exclusive use by Toronto Community Housing residents.
When that effort failed to gain traction on the floor of council and was referred to the city manager, Mr. Ford and his brother cast the lone votes against the deal. After the loss, the mayor lashed out at councillors.
“They’ve just insulted every single kid in Toronto Community Housing,” a frustrated Mr. Ford told reporters. “Who knows how long it will take? As people say, we send them to never-never land sometimes,” he said of sending the motion to the city manager for further study.
Mr. Ford described his motion to dedicate 10 per cent of court time to TCH residents for free as a “no-brainer,” and accused his council colleagues of “playing politics” by voting against it.
“For the poorest kids in the city, this is a no-brainer,” he said. “If they want to play their political games – and that’s all they are – you know what? They can explain to the kids at election time why they’re not getting access, because they’re not right now.”
Councillor Mark Grimes, appointed by Mr. Ford as chair of the board of Exhibition Place, said if anyone is playing politics, it’s the mayor.
“It’s a great deal for the city,” said Mr. Grimes, an ally of the mayor at the beginning of the term. “It’s that time of year right now when people move political motions. Everyone on that council floor, we want to look after underprivileged children. I think it was more politics being played.”
Mr. Grimes said if the mayor wanted changes he should have approached him as chair of Exhibition Place earlier in the process, pointing out that he worked with area councillors Mike Layton and Gord Perks to get a compromise with MLSE on concerns over parkland and parking. “I’m disappointed the mayor and Councillor [Doug] Ford did not support it,” he said.
During the debate some councillors questioned whether the new terms would derail the deal until after the municipal election, a delay that would mean the facility would not be ready for 2016 when the Raptors play host to the NBA all-star game.
Mr. Perks pointed out that the city already has a policy that allows low-income residents no matter where they live to apply for free access to city recreation programs – including those that will be run at the new Raptors’ facility. Under the deal, MLSE will donate $2-million to maintain courts in other city facilities, he said.
Mr. Perks said negotiations on the deal have been going on for months and the mayor did not take any part in them.
The mayor and Councillor Ford also raised eyebrows for being the lone votes against a motion seeking to reduce paid duty policing costs. Councillor Ford told reporters he believes the issue should be up to the police board, but Councillor Josh Matlow, who moved the motion, called that “absurd.”
“My motion defines finding efficiencies, cutting waste and being respectful of taxpayers,” he said. “It seems politics sometimes comes before public policy.”