It's been promoted as a billion-dollar project that will bring more than 9,000 jobs to a needy corner of the city, but Woodbine Live, the entertainment and retail project touted by Mayor Rob Ford as proof of his ability to attract investment, is in jeopardy of losing its tax breaks from the city.
The 180-acre proposed development, on property adjacent to the Woodbine race course in the mayor's former ward, remains an empty field close to four years after council agreed to generous tax incentives to kick-start the project – envisioned as a tourist destination with tree-lined shopping streets, a hotel, restaurants, nightclubs and live entertainment. A proposed second phase would include office and residential development.
Those tax incentives will expire in October, 2014, if the first 800,000 square feet of development is not complete. With no final site plan, subdivision agreement or building permits yet in hand, city staff say it will be difficult to meet that deadline in less than 2 1/2 years.
Nick Eaves, CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, the racetrack operator that owns the site, says the delay is a result of a disagreement with its partner, Baltimore-based developer The Cordish Cos. "There certainly is a dispute between the parties," Mr. Eaves said. "Those issues are being dealt with through confidential arbitration."
Cordish provided no reasons for the delay when contacted. "Woodbine Live, among other things, has always been about world class entertainment that acts as a major regional tourist draw," it said in a written response. "We are in the fortunate position of having both anchor and inline tenants committed and tenant interest has been off the charts."
Mr. Eaves would not predict when the partners' differences might be settled, but city staff say there isn't much time left.
"Time is running short," said Mike Williams, the city's general manager of economic development and culture, which oversees the tax-incentive program. "It's not impossible, but it's pretty tight."
The sprawling site at the corner of Rexdale Boulevard and Highway 427, was a centrepiece of Mr. Ford's pro-business credentials during his race for mayor.
"I know how to deal with CEOs of huge corporations – that's how I landed the largest development in Toronto's history," he told a reporter during the campaign. "Woodbine Live, I did that."
Councillor Doug Ford, who now represents the Etobicoke ward, said he is working to resolve issues, but gave no details.
"We aren't happy about it," Councillor Ford said Monday. "I can assure you the mayor and myself are working every single day on this issue. Every day."
Mr. Ford said what is needed is a meeting with both partners. "We just have to get the two parties in the room together," he said, conceding it is largely out of the city's control. "We are a facilitator, not an arbitrator," he said.
Regular weekly meetings between city staff and Cordish ended in July, according to a staff report that will go to council Tuesday.
Several real estate executives said the Rexdale site has had difficulty attracting tenants and Cordish began floating the concept of an outlet mall for the property last year. The project also suffered because of the downturn in the U.S. market, they said.
"Their timing couldn't have been worse," said John Crombie, of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real-estate firm. After sitting on the market for so long, Mr. Crombie said the site has "lost a bit of its zip" with potential tenants.
The property has returned to the news recently as a possible location for the new Toronto casino proposed by the province's lottery corporation. Mr. Eaves has called the racetrack, with its 3,000 slot machines, a "logical place" for casino expansion. Cordish also endorses the idea, saying, "There is no better site for a full casino in North America."
Such talk has some worrying the proposed casino will be used to bring new life to the Woodbine project. Under the deal with the city, a casino is not permitted.
"I fear the casino will become the default to Woodbine Live," said councillor Janet Davis, who requested the status report to council. "The city has been working for years in good faith and it drew to a complete halt last summer. I want to understand why."
Toronto is not the only city to watch a Cordish site sit vacant for years following high expectations. The U.S. developer had two prime downtown sites in Niagara Falls, N.Y., under its control for decades – a parking lot that was used as a base for balloon rides and a mall that eventually closed.
Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster came to office as a reformer, promising to take on "do-nothing developers," he remembers. These days, Mr. Dyster has good things to say about company leader David Cordish, who in 2010 agreed to hand over the properties – for an undisclosed charitable donation – after a local college expressed interest in opening a hospitality and culinary institute on the site of the former mall.
"I was flabbergasted," said Mr. Dyster, remembering a conversation where Mr. Cordish made the offer. "He couldn't make it work for himself but instead of standing in the way and just sitting and speculating on these properties, he decided to do something extraordinary."