Three companies, including a Quebec outdoor recreation firm and a European spa and water park provider, have been chosen to revitalize Ontario Place after a closed-door bid process that has dragged on for years, sources have told The Globe and Mail.
The Ontario government plans to give Quebec’s Écorécréo the reins for part of the 63-hectare site on Toronto’s waterfront, along with Austrian company Therme, the sources said. Live Nation, which runs the performance venue at Ontario Place, will have an expanded role.
A formal government announcement could come as early as this month. The Globe is not identifying its sources, who have direct knowledge of the bid process, because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Provincial Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod, who in recent months has promised big news soon on Ontario Place, offered no comment when reached on Wednesday evening.
Taken together, the choice of companies appears to hark back to Ontario Place’s earlier days, offering outdoorsy activities, year-round live entertainment and a more sophisticated take on a water park, with both a beach and spa facilities.
But even if the overall vision gets public approval, the lack of community input into the process has raised hackles.
“There’s no public consultation,” said Suzanne Kavanagh, a founder of the grassroots group Ontario Place for All.
“Every time there’s a new minister or a new adviser, we write a nice letter saying ‘welcome and we’d love to talk to you’ … and we’ve yet to hear anything.”
Ms. Kavanagh and other local activists say they want more of Ontario Place turned into parkland and kept open to the public, without visitors necessarily having to pay to enjoy the site.
The three winning firms did not respond to inquiries about their plans.
The future of Ontario Place has largely been kept under wraps as the province put the moribund amusement park space – which opened in 1971 and closed in 2011 – up for bids from the private sector. A similar process under the previous Liberal government and involving many of the same bidders ran out of time before the 2018 election transferred power to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.
As Premier, Mr. Ford has taken an active interest in Ontario Place. The waterfront has drawn his attention since his days in local politics.
During the mayoralty of Mr. Ford’s brother, Rob Ford, when the Premier was a Toronto city councillor, he favoured a waterfront casino, and pushed a failed plan to install a Ferris wheel, a monorail and a “megamall” in the Port Lands.
As Premier, Mr. Ford oversaw a resumption of the bidding process for Ontario Place. After months of speculation about his plans for the site, the government in 2019 ruled out condos or any new casino.
Mayor John Tory is also opposed to a casino there. In 2012, before running for mayor, he chaired an advisory committee that urged the province to give part of the site over to condos. In May, Mr. Tory and the rest of city council voted against residential development at Ontario Place.
The province said in 2019 that it planned to lease, not sell, the land. The open-ended process also allowed the government to enter into talks with any bidder, combine elements of different bids or reject all that came forward.
Among the proposals was one by Ken Tanenbaum, a major Toronto developer. His idea was to move the Ontario Science Centre to the site and surround it with parkland. In 2019, The Globe reported that Carl Demarco, a Toronto businessman and former executive with World Wrestling Entertainment, was among those bidding for the site. But his precise plans were never revealed.
The provincial documents calling for development proposals issued in 2019 said the new Ontario Place should be a “spectacular destination that will attract local and international visitors,” and could include “landmarks such as recreational and sports facilities, public spaces and parks, retail and entertainment attractions.”
The documents point to a new line that would terminate near Ontario Place in Mr. Ford’s redrawing of Toronto’s subway plans as a vital transit link. While they say no taxpayer subsidies are on offer, the bid documents also promise that the government will first render Ontario Place – which lacks water and sewage and other services for larger-scale buildings – ready for development.
That cost alone, according to documents dating to when the Liberals were still in power, was budgeted at $100-million.
In spite of Mr. Ford’s interest in this file, progress towards a bid selection has been slow. Earlier this year, the government announced it had hired former Toronto police chief Mark Saunders for up to $171,500 a year as a special adviser on redeveloping Ontario Place.
The province had decided earlier that the architecturally significant Cinesphere, a bulbous movie theatre, and the “pods” perched above the water would remain no matter which companies were chosen.
If the winning bidders want to reduce or wipe out the recently completed Trillium Park on the east side of the grounds, they must replace that 7.5 acres of parkland elsewhere on the site. A marina also must be maintained.
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