The previous Ontario government was in the final stages of selecting a private sector bidder to redevelop Ontario Place when it was forced to put the negotiations on hold, leaving the waterfront property’s future uncertain.
Provincial officials had selected a shortlist of three private companies from more than 20 proposals to rebuild the one-kilometre long complex, but were unable to finalize a deal before the writ was dropped in May, according to people close to the project and internal documents obtained by The Globe and Mail. Bidders, who put forward starkly different visions for the redevelopment, were told that the project was temporarily shelved.
With the election of the Progressive Conservatives, the project remains on hold, according to officials.
“The government remains in caretaker mode during government transition and is unable to comment on policy,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
Once a futuristic amusement park and exhibition complex, Ontario Place was shut down in 2012 and now shows signs of disrepair. The government required that all the bids include an element of innovation, in a nod to Ontario Place’s original conception as a showcase for the government and an answer to Montreal’s Expo ’67. Bidders could not include proposals to build casinos or housing.
Sources said the top three submissions included one from Therme, a German spa-and-waterpark company which would have included a new beach.
Another leading bid was spearheaded by developer Ken Tanenbaum, vice-chairman of Kilmer Van Nostrand and Co. and son of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. chairman Larry Tanenbaum, and called for the construction of an educational campus and a large park.
A third bidder proposed a film industry development that would have included soundstages and an interactive tourist attraction.
Kathleen Wynne made the rebuilding of the area a marquee project for her government when she entered the premier’s office in 2013. One element of the rebuilding, the construction of Trillium Park on the eastern edge of Ontario Place, was finished in 2017.
The government put out a request for proposals to redevelop the other half of the property in the fall. Internal documents show that among the bids the government received were proposals to build an outdoor adventure space, a conference center, a francophone college and a First Nations plan to build a sweat lodge and interpretive centre.
The bidders all signed non-disclosure agreements. The bid from Therme, which has built several large spa facilities in Europe, would have involved the creation of a new sandy children’s beach, as well as a European spa for adults, one source said.
“As part of its international expansion, Therme Group is considering New York and Toronto, and potentially a second location in Canada, for the shortlist for the development of its premier location in North America,” Therme Group Canada’s vice president, Pierre Lafontaine, said in an e-mailed statement.
Former Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat was brought in as a consultant for Infrastructure Ontario to evaluate the bids at a late stage in the process. She declined to discuss the bids and said she is no longer involved.
Sources said the Ontario government was keen to announce the Ontario Place plans, but simply ran out of time.
The process was also hindered by the government’s hopes that a private partner could be found to minimize the government investment required – while still keeping Ontario Place largely open to the public and not transforming it into a completely commercial enterprise.
Documents show the government had allocated $100-million to the project for site remediation and was willing to sign a long-term lease for the area’s iconic Cinesphere cinema and a number of the neighbouring Pavilion Pods suspended above a lagoon. The cinema was reopened in 2017.
According to a bidder on the project who was not shortlisted, government officials in early 2018 expressed reluctance about the bids brought forward because of concerns the proposals called for too much investment from outside Ontario, didn’t set aside enough public space or asked the government for too much money.
A similar concern was noted in a document from the ministry of tourism and culture, which said that “no single submission stood out.” Ms. Keesmaat’s appointment to the project, which was not publicly announced, was seen by bidders as an attempt to get the project on track, according to a source.
Mr. Tanenbaum’s bid included the neighbouring Canadian National Exhibition Association, the independent not-for-profit that runs the annual fair at Exhibition Place just across Lakeshore Boulevard from Ontario Place.
Their concept, using a team of well-known urban planning consultants, would have turned much of the western half of Ontario Place into new “active park space,” and would have additionally included small-scale music venues, an “advanced education” campus and new space for arts events, Mr. Tanenbaum said in an interview.
Sources and the internal documents say his bid came with a request for $500-million from the provincial government funding – something government officials saw as a significant problem.
Mr. Tanenbaum said that estimate is “mistaken, by quite a large margin,” but declined to provide a figure. The requested government money would be used to fix up the derelict site, as well as provide water, power and sewer service, and was necessary to realize Ontario’s vision for the property, he said.
“If you wanted to do condos and casinos, that’s a different commercial proposition. But the province was very explicit that there should be no condos and no casinos.”
Mr. Tanenbaum said he did not know if his bid was the government’s top choice or not. But he said he was informed in a letter that the “process is on pause.”