Ontario’s Office of the Auditor-General is launching a probe into the provincial government’s redevelopment of Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront, where plans to allow an Austrian company to build a large spa and waterpark have prompted opposition from local activists and criticism from the city’s mayor and planners.
The office confirmed on Friday that acting Auditor-General Nick Stavropoulos will undertake value-for-money audits of the plan for Vienna-based Therme Group to build a $350-million glass-enclosed facility on Ontario Place’s west island, and for the moving of the Ontario Science Centre to the site.
Becky Fong, a spokeswoman for the office, would not comment further on the audits or their scope and said a date for their completion had not been finalized.
Critics have seized on the plans to hand much of Ontario Place to Therme, which has signed an undisclosed lease reported to be 95 years in length. Local activists argue the area should instead be revitalized as publicly accessible parkland.
They also take issue with the government’s plans to spend at least $200-million preparing the site for Therme and its decision to build a multilevel, 2,100-spot underground parking garage for Ontario Place, a project expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus, opposition has sprung up against the notion of moving the science centre from its distinctive half-century-old building in Toronto’s diverse Flemingdon Park area.
The Ontario Place plans also include an expansion of the existing Budweiser Stage concert venue. As well, the government announced earlier this year that it was in talks with a group called Ontario Live to provide unspecified “family-friendly, world-class social hospitality and entertainment services” at Ontario Place.
That group includes Zlatko Starkovski, the former operator of Muzik nightclub at nearby Exhibition Place, and the Canadian arm of the Labourers’ International Union of North American, a massive construction union that is a long-time political backer of Premier Doug Ford. Mr. Starkovski did not respond to a request for comment. Victoria Mancinelli, a spokesperson for LiUNA, declined to comment on Ontario Live or the impending audit.
The audits were requested by advocacy groups Ontario Place for All, Waterfront For All and Architectural Conservancy Ontario, with support from the Ontario NDP.
Norm Di Pasquale, co-chair of Ontario Place for All, welcomed word of the probe, saying it is wrong for Ontario taxpayers to subsidize a foreign-owned “megaspa” with several hundred million dollars. He and Toronto NDP MPP Chris Glover, speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park, demanded that the government halt its work already under way at Ontario Place – which is to include chopping down hundreds of trees – until the audits are complete.
Mr. Glover said he hoped the audit would unveil the business case, repeatedly cited by the government but never released publicly, which Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma has previously said justifies moving the science centre to a new but smaller building at Ontario Place from its aging current site.
Andrea Chiappetta, a spokesman Ms. Surma, said the government is moving ahead with its work at Ontario Place and defended what he called a “competitive, open process” run by non-partisan procurement officials at Infrastructure Ontario.
Simon Bredin, a spokesman for Therme Canada, welcomed the audit and said he believes it will show his company’s plan “brings excellent value for Ontarians.” He said Therme is investing approximately $500-million in the redevelopment, including the spa-waterpark as well as 6.5 hectares16 acres of public parkland.
The development plans are currently before the city. Mayor Olivia Chow campaigned against the spa plan, but has since noted her limited power to influence it.
In a statement Friday, spokeswoman Arianne Robinson repeated the mayor’s support for moving the spa-waterpark to the city’s nearby Exhibition Place, rather than building it on “precious, public waterfront land.” This week, Ms. Chow’s cabinetlike executive committee voted unanimously to kick-start a feasibility study of such a move, with staff expected to report back early in December.
With a report from Oliver Moore