Moving the Ontario Science Centre to a new home at a redeveloped Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront would save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 50 years, according to a newly released provincial government report that critics say relies on speculative numbers.
Michael Lindsay, the president and chief executive of the province’s Infrastructure Ontario agency, unveiled a March, 2023, business case – kept secret until now – that outlines the costs and benefits of the Ford government’s plan to relocate the Ontario Science Centre from its deteriorating 52-year-old building on Don Mills Road in North York to a new waterfront facility.
“In my professional opinion, based on the analysis that we’ve done, it is far preferable for the Ontario Science Centre, given its mission and the programming that it delivers, to be relocated from Don Mills to a purpose-built new facility,” Mr. Lindsay told reporters on Wednesday at Queen’s Park.
But critics say the document’s projections are not the final word on Premier Doug Ford’s plan to relocate the science centre to the middle of his controversial redevelopment of Ontario Place, which includes a massive, glass-enclosed spa and waterpark to be built by Vienna-based Therme Group. The planned spa has sparked vehement local opposition from activists who want the entire site turned into public parkland.
According to the business case, which the government had pledged to release months ago, relocating the science centre to Ontario Place would save taxpayers $257-million over the next five decades, or about $600-million when inflation over that time is taken into account. The savings include reduced operating costs, with a smaller building and fewer staff, and projections of increased revenues from visitors to the downtown location.
But the report also suggests the move would be good public relations for Mr. Ford’s proposal to allow a foreign, private company to build a massive spa and waterpark next door.
“Securing a publicly owned cultural anchor, such as the [Ontario Science Centre], could be an important addition to counter negative perceptions of the commercialization and privatization of this unique waterfront public asset,” the business case says.
The document says the current science centre is “not sustainable,” has seen falling attendance for more than a decade and would require at least $478-million to repair and replace outdated infrastructure – including more than $100-million for new exhibits and “cosmetic updates.” The report estimates that building a new smaller facility, with new exhibits, would cost $386-million.
This number does not include the $25.5-million the government has already committed to paying to rehabilitate Ontario Place’s giant-golf-ball-like Cinesphere and its futuristic Pods, suspended over Lake Ontario, that the relocated science centre would also use.
And the business case is silent on the question of what will happen to the existing science centre building in Toronto’s diverse Flemingdon Park neighbourhood. Just this week, Mayor Olivia Chow and Mr. Ford, while announcing a new financial deal for Toronto, suggested the building could remain open for science-related programming aimed at the local community.
While no details have been provided, that scenario could wipe out some of the hundreds of millions in savings the business case anticipates from not having to renovate the aging structure. But neither government would provide concrete details about the idea. The business case suggests the city-owned site could be redeveloped.
Ivana Yelich, Mr. Ford’s deputy chief of staff, told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday that Mr. Ford and Ms. Chow agreed to pursue a “legacy project” in the community that honours the original science centre through science-based programming, but is not necessarily located in the existing building.
But Arianne Robinson, a spokeswoman for Ms. Chow, said in an e-mail that the two governments agreed to “discuss partnership opportunities to maintain public, community-oriented science programming at the legacy Science Centre.” She said the details have not been determined.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the business case “relies on shady, 50-year guestimates” of revenues and costs to come up with the conclusion that moving the science centre would save money. She points to numbers in the report that also show the short-term cost of doing just the essential renovations at the current site would be less than half the price tag for the new building.
“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,” Ms. Stiles said.
Liberal MPP Adil Shamji, who represents Don Valley East, where the existing science centre is located, said the business case fails to acknowledge a new science centre will have only 50 per cent of the original footprint in a non-heritage building. He also said retaining the educational and cultural attraction was good for the local community, instead of “concentrating it all in the downtown core.”