The Ontario government’s decision to move the Ontario Science Centre to its Ontario Place redevelopment on Toronto’s waterfront was made without a full comparison of the projected costs or proper consultations with the city or its school boards, the province’s acting Auditor-General says.
In an annual report released on Wednesday, acting Auditor-General Nick Stavropoulos cast doubt on the government’s justification for its plan to relocate the science centre to a new facility at Ontario Place, where its move to allow Austria-based Therme Group to build a large spa and waterpark complex has sparked local opposition.
The auditor also shone a spotlight on the government’s failings in health care, saying it has no provincewide strategy to keep emergency rooms open amid widespread staff shortages. As a result, there were more than 200 unplanned ER shutdowns between July, 2022, and July, 2023, in 23 mostly rural and remote hospitals, the audit found. It also details how some small hospitals have been forced to spend millions of extra dollars on nurses from expensive temporary staffing agencies to keep their doors open.
Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones rejected the notion that the government had no plan. She told reporters Wednesday the use of private-sector staffing agencies was decreasing. And she pointed to previously announced moves to expand the number of nurses in the province, including by accelerating the use of foreign-trained nurses.
The acting Auditor-General’s findings on the Ontario Science Centre directly contradict the conclusions of a business case released by Infrastructure Ontario officials last week, a report the government said justified moving the science centre from its half-century-old building in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park area to a redeveloped Ontario Place.
The government said its numbers showed the move to a new, smaller waterfront building would save the struggling science centre $257-million over 50 years. But Wednesday’s audit says that analysis failed to include the price for legal advice, financing and other transaction costs for the future private-public-partnership expected to build the new facility. It also left out any money for the cost of repairing and rehabilitating the existing building the centre would vacate, estimated at $370-million.
The government’s numbers also fail to account for the cost of a new parking garage at Ontario Place, expected to run at least $277-million, the audit says. The province, the audit details, will be contractually obligated to provide parking for Ontario Place’s other tenants: Live Nation, which operates and plans to expand the site’s Budweiser Stage concert venue, and Therme Group’s spa and waterpark.
Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and Premier Doug Ford, announcing a new financial deal for the city last week, said the existing science centre building would still be used for some sort of science-based programming to benefit the local community. The pair also agreed to move the proposed parking garage, which was expected to be an expensive underground facility built beneath a new lakefront science centre, to nearby Exhibition Place, where it would be cheaper.
Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma defended the parking plan, saying it was for Ontario Place as a whole, not just Therme. She also said the issue of parking was being negotiated with Live Nation in talks now under way.
The acting Auditor-General recommended the government include “all costs” in studying what to do with the science centre.
In its official response included in the audit, the government said the relevant ministries would “work together as appropriate to continue to bring forward business cases that are robust, well informed and bring together all relevant costs” on “options” for the Ontario Science Centre. The government also said no decision had been made on the future of the existing science-centre site.
The audit also says the province failed to consider projections that attendance from suburban families and schools would decline if the science centre was relocated to the waterfront and that it failed to properly consult school boards and city officials.
Official Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said the audit shows the government is handing the private-sector spa and waterpark taxpayer-subsidized parking worth hundreds of millions of dollars and that it “rigged” its business case to support moving the science centre.
A separate audit of the plan to lease, for a reported 95 years, much of Ontario Place’s west island to Therme Group to build the $350-million spa and waterpark, is still under way and yet to be released.
Just minutes after the acting Auditor-General addressed reporters, the Ontario Legislature unanimously appointed Shelley Spence, a chartered accountant and former partner at Deloitte, to the role for a 10-year term starting Jan. 8. She was recommended by a bipartisan panel of a Progressive Conservative MPP and an NDP MPP, chaired by Speaker Ted Arnott.
With a report from Laura Stone