Toronto waterfront activists, opposition politicians and three mayoral candidates say provincial talks with a former nightclub owner and a large construction union about providing “hospitality and entertainment services” at Ontario Place should be scrapped – along with the rest of the redevelopment project.
The Globe and Mail reported on Friday that negotiations under way with a group called Ontario Live, which had previously submitted its own bid for the government-owned site on Toronto’s waterfront, include Zlatko Starkovski, the former operator of Muzik nightclub at nearby Exhibition Place, which is now a “supper club.”
His business was also hired to provide alcohol service at large “Ford Fest” barbecues while Premier Doug Ford’s brother Rob was Toronto’s mayor from 2010 to 2014. His Muzik nightclub played host to Drake, Justin Bieber and Rob Ford himself, whose attendance there made headlines during his scandal-plagued term.
Also part of the group is the Labourers’ International Union of North American (LiUNA), a massive construction union that is a long-time political backer of the Premier. The government’s Infrastructure Ontario agency also told The Globe that Plenary Americas, a major infrastructure development and investment company, and Sheldon Esbin, founder of Romspen Investment Corp., are involved as well.
The undefined attraction would neighbour the large waterpark and spa to be built by Austria’s Therme Group and a relocated Ontario Science Centre as part of the government’s plan for a revitalized Ontario Place – a plan that has provoked vehement opposition.
Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of the citizens’ group Ontario Place For All that is fighting the entire project, says at the very least, contracts for restaurants or the like should be put out to competitive tender.
“This feels like Ron Taverner being promoted to the chief of the OPP again,” Mr. Di Pasquale said, referring to the botched appointment of a senior Toronto police official and friend of Mr. Ford’s as commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police early in the government’s first term.
In an interview, Official Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles cited Doug Ford’s previous support for a waterfront casino when he was a Toronto city councillor and noted that Romspen owns the Kawartha Downs racetrack and casino near Peterborough, Ont. She speculated the idea could return for Ontario Place, noting that Mr. Ford recently broke a promise not to allow development in the province’s protected Greenbelt area.
The government ruled out a casino at Ontario Place before issuing its call for proposals from the private-sector bidders for the site in 2019.
“I don’t trust Ford on this at all,” Ms. Stiles said in an interview. “I don’t trust it when he says he’s not going to build a casino there. We know that he has mused about that certainly before. And he’s broken so many promises already.”
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for the Premier, said there was no plan for a casino at Ontario Place.
“As we’ve said from the start, a reinvigorated Ontario Place will not include casinos or condos, and any claim otherwise is false,” she said in an e-mail.
She also defended the participation of Ontario Live in the waterfront site.
“Ontario Live is made up of recognized leaders that bring years of experience in delivering hospitality and entertainment services,” she said, noting that Mr. Starkovski’s company has been a food, beverage and entertainment vendor at Exhibition Place since 2004.
Ontario Place is becoming a key issue in the current by-election for mayor in Toronto. Candidates Olivia Chow and Josh Matlow condemned the Ontario Live talks and said they oppose the entire redevelopment project, as did Mitzie Hunter.
Ana Bailao’s campaign said it was up to the province “to answer for procurement and issuing contracts at Ontario Place.”
A spokeswoman for former police chief Mark Saunders, a former provincial government adviser on the project, did not address questions about Ontario Live.
A spokeswoman for Brad Bradford did not provide a comment before deadline.