Minister of Tourism, Culture, and Sport Michael Tibollo outlined high-level goals for Ontario Place in a closed-door meeting with industry representatives where he described the state of the waterfront site in terms that echoed Ontario Place board chair Jim Ginou's controversial remarks earlier this month.
The comments highlighted the minister’s overall philosophy and priorities for Ontario Place and indicated the government’s eagerness to attract investment to the waterfront site that has been mostly unused since 2011, when the Liberal government shuttered the money-losing theme park west of Toronto’s downtown.
In a wide-ranging discussion with tourism stakeholders on Tuesday, the minister slammed the state of Ontario Place on multiple occasions, calling it “shameful.” He unfavourably described a recent site visit in cinematic terms, saying, “I feel like I’m walking through a Fellini film,” and remarked on the peeling paint on buildings that have not been maintained.
In its place, the minister expressed the desire for an ambitious vision to turn Ontario Place into a jewel, saying that doing so would require working with more than one developer. He also raised the idea of integrating Ontario Place with the city-owned Exhibition Grounds and invoked the idea of a monorail to ease transportation concerns to and at the site.
Tibollo referred to the state of Ontario Place in harsh terms, calling it a “disgrace,” according to multiple sources in the meeting. The language used by the minister was similar to Ginou’s controversial comments to QP Briefing that sparked a backlash from opposition MPPs and waterfront advocates, showing a consistent government approach to the site that was opened for expressions of interest last week.
In the Queen’s Park meeting with 20 to 30 attendees that was meant to inform the government’s upcoming Tourism Strategy, Tibollo bemoaned the fact that the 63-hectare Ontario Place site that was first opened in 1971 has been allowed to deteriorate.
(Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Michael Tibollo is seen during question period at Queen's Park, August 1, 2018. Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star)
Tibollo described Ontario Place as a significant government asset that needs action, adding that the priority is to “reinvigorate” the site, according to multiple sources in the meeting who spoke with QP Briefing on background.
At one point the minister said the government will look at “every option possible” for the site, including working with international partners. When one stakeholder expressed support for some parts of Ontario Place, including the Cinesphere, a designated structure of Cultural Heritage Value, the minister responded that the Ontario Place as a whole is “definitely going to be redevelopment.” Tibollo did not downplay concerns that the world’s first standalone Imax theatre, which recently underwent an extensive renovation and regularly plays sold-out screenings, could be a victim of changes to the site.
Later, he mentioned a meeting he attended Sunday where he met with high net worth Chinese entrepreneurs, saying that they “perked up” when he mentioned the Ontario Place opportunity. Several stakeholders mentioned that difficult relations with China have hurt tourism, and Tibollo floated the idea of recommending that the premier go on a trade mission to the country to spread the message that Ontario is “open for business.”
Tibollo also urged people in the room to submit ideas for the site in the expressions-of-interest process.
In an email, press secretary to the minister Brett Weltman slammed the previous government for its management of the site. “Under the previous Liberal government, Ontario Place fell into disrepair, and has been underutilized. That is why we want to move forward as quickly as possible with a plan to create a world-class destination in Ontario.”
He continued by saying that working with the private sector can open up exciting possibilities for the site. “No decisions have been made at this time. We look forward to receiving new and innovative ideas as a part of this process. We believe in, and support the power and ingenuity of the private sector. That is why we are going to look for the best partners from around the world to work with us on this unique opportunity.”
The comments from Tibollo in the meeting and statement from the minister’s office are consistent with previous government remarks about the Ontario Place site. In November, Finance Minister Vic Fedeli described what the government was looking for as something “bold” for a “world-class attraction” and refused to rule out a potential casino on the site. The Toronto Star reported in September that the premier has taken a personal interest in the Ontario Place site.
In a tweet on Tuesday, the premier promoted the potential redevelopment of Ontario Place, framing the site as a tourist attraction.
Let's make Ontario Place a world-class tourist destination once again! Ontario is now accepting proposals to turn this waterfront attraction into a top destination for Ontarians and visitors to enjoy. Learn more here: https://t.co/5Q41ku1M5f pic.twitter.com/PtJ823T5ej
— Doug Ford (@fordnation) January 22, 2019
Many local advocates, including the group Waterfront for All, have tried to reposition the site in terms of public space and a place that’s accessible rather than solely a tourist draw.
The government's parameters for the expressions of interest excludes any proposals that require government operating grants or capital investment.
The stakeholder session was part of a series of tourism industry meetings the minister is conducting around the province. Last week he heard from stakeholders on Manitoulin Island, where a journalist for the Manitoulin Expositor was not allowed to observe the proceedings. Tibollo later conducted a followup phone interview with the reporter.
In the meeting at Queen’s Park, Tibollo also raised the idea of a monorail, referencing the one at Disney’s 123-hectare EPCOT Center in Florida. Unprompted, the minister raised the possibility during a discussion about easing transportation difficulties around Ontario Place. He said there should be a link to Union Station and that a monorail, as an example, could serve both the Ontario Place and Exhibition Grounds.
EPCOT’s monorail, once seen as a symbol of futuristic transportation, has faced recent reliability problems and could require upwards of an estimated $250-million in additional investments to update its fleet, according to reports.
When asked by QP Briefing whether a monorail would be open for consideration at Ontario Place, the minister’s office did not address the question, leaving what was a controversial idea proposed by then-councillor Doug Ford for Toronto’s Port Lands as a possibility.
(The Ontario Place property, mostly closed for the past few years, has a few attractions but not the draw it once was. Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)
Tibollo also said that if the government wants to plan something “futuristic” and stand the test of time, it should look at integrating Ontario Place with Exhibition Place, the site to the east that is owned by the City of Toronto, adding that a change like that would require lots of work and consultation with the City of Toronto. It’s an idea that has been backed by the likes of urbanist Ken Greenberg and former City of Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford, but the terms of how it would be done could create further provincial-municipal tension.
Informed of Tibollo’s remarks, NDP MPP Chris Glover, whose riding includes Ontario Place, lambasted the minister for his negative characterizations of the site.
“A lot of the site has been redeveloped and reinvigorated,” said the MPP for Spadina—Fort York. “There’s a beautiful Bill Davis Trail on the east island, there’s the seven-acre Trillium Park on the east island that’s been redone. It’s quite a beautiful space,” he said, adding that the Cinesphere has also been renovated, and that the west island is what needs work. “There’s a lot to offer in what’s been done.”
Glover argued that the minister’s starting point — that the whole site needs to be revamped — loses out on the value of what’s been developed over the past three years. He added that one benefit of what has been done so far is that it was done in consultation with the public, and that the government has not done so thus far with its Ontario Place efforts. “This is public property, and it’s some of the most valuable public property” that the province owns, the MPP said. “Any changes that are going to be done must be done in consultation with the public that owns the property.”
Glover added that the best way to ease transportation concerns at Ontario Place and for residents in the surrounding area would be to fund the long-awaited Waterfront LRT. The 11-kilometre Waterfront West LRT would serve burgeoning population growth at Liberty Village and Cityplace, among other communities.
Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy also prioritized the need for the Waterfront LRT as the transit solution for the site, and agreed with the minister that integration between Ontario Place the Exhibition Grounds needs to be considered. But he criticized the government’s approach where it has spoken to stakeholders and developers before consulting the public.
“Up until now the conversation reeks of a backroom deal,” Cressy said, urging the government to hear from the public and establish their priorities before choosing which ideas it prefers from developers. Cressy called it a “scattershot approach” that was “completely backwards.”
The City of Toronto has established a subcommittee related to Ontario Place that will meet for the first time on March 5.
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