Ontario auditor general launches probe into Ontario Place redevelopment

By Richard Southern, John Marchesan

Ontario’s auditor general has launched a pair of audits into the Ford government’s redevelopment plan of Ontario Place.

CityNews has confirmed the provincial watchdog is looking into the government’s reimagined vision for the lakefront public space, which includes a private, for-profit spa as well as the decision to move the Ontario Science Centre down to Ontario Place.

“As these audits are currently in progress, we cannot comment on them further,” read a brief statement from the auditor general’s office which did not indicate if those audits would be released as part of the annual report, which is usually published in late November or early December.

A spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma says work at Ontario Place is already well underway and the redevelopment has been a “competitive, open process” led by nonpartisan officials.

“Audits are a standard part of government business. We will continue to work collaboratively together with our partners to rebuild an Ontario Place that’s fun for families, students and tourists to enjoy for generations to come,” read the statement.

The Ford government has faced mounting scrutiny over the timeline and the bidding process for the redevelopment of the iconic waterfront park, specifically a 95-year lease handed to Austrian-based Therme Group to to build and operate a water park and what is described as a European-style bathing centre. Critics have pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding the deal, pointing out that no environmental assessment is necessary on the design because it is a private project.

Earlier this week, Toronto City Council’s Executive Committee asked city staff to report back on a proposal, which would see the Therme spa and park relocated to the Exhibition Place grounds.

Questions also surround the government’s decision to move the Science Centre from its current location in North York. Government officials have said it is more cost-effective to move the Science Centre to Ontario Place rather than renovate the existing site but have not provided any details to back up those claims.

The Ministry’s statement would only say that the Science Centre board voted unanimously in favour of the decision to move to Ontario Place and that the government was “confident in our decision.”

The opposition NDP is calling on the provincial government to stop the bulldozing of Ontario Place until the auditor general finishes their report.

“There’s a lot for the auditor general to investigate,” said NDP MPP Chris Glover, whose riding of Spadina-Fort York includes Ontario Place.

“There’s the $650 million taxpayer subsidy, there’s an approximate $1.4 property value that’s being given away to this corporation, apparently for free, and then there is Minister Kinga Surma’s claim that it’s cheaper to close the Science Centre and build a new smaller one at Ontario Place than to maintain the existing Science Centre.”

“It’s time to shine a light on what Ford has signed Ontarians up for with this Ontario Place deal.”

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner also welcomed the auditor general’s probe into what he calls “shady dealings with Ontario Place.”

“From the 95-year lease with a private company to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars going to a massive parking lot, this scheme has red flags all over it,” Schreiner said in a statement. “It seems the Ford government has yet to learn the lessons of their $8.3 billion Greenbelt scandal.”

The group Ontario Place For All says it hopes the audits will “shine a light on the opaque and rushed processes that have led to the imminent destruction and 95-year giveaway of Ontario Place’s West Island for a MegaSpa, as well as the demolishing and diminishing of the Ontario Science Centre.”

“The taxpayer money that is being poured into supporting a pay-to-play megaspa just really feels wrong,” Norm Di Pasquale, Co-Chair of Ontario Place for All, tells CityNews. “What I really like about this auditor general report is that I hope it is going to answer the question about what is in this for Ontarians.”

Ontario Place for All, Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, and Waterfront for All have previously filed requests with the auditor general’s office to conduct a value-for-money audit and a compliance investigation in connection with the Therme spa proposal. The groups were asking for clarity as to how the public costs associated with the project line up with the potential benefits.

A spokesperson for Therme Group Canada says they look forward to assisting the auditor general in its review of the Ontario Place plans.

“We look forward to engaging with the Auditor General, and we’re confident he will find that Therme’s participation in the revitalization of Ontario Place brings excellent value for Ontarians,” read a statement from the group. “Ultimately, Therme will be investing approximately half a billion dollars to create a 16-acre public park and year-round family destination, and we look forward to sharing details of those plans with the Auditor General’s Office.”

The auditor general’s investigation comes just months after it found the Ford government’s decision to parcel off lands from the Greenbelt was “biased,” “seriously flawed,” and favoured developers with ties to the housing minister’s chief of staff.

Housing minister Steve Clark, his chief of staff, Ryan Amato, and Kaleed Rasheed, who was Minister of Public and Business Service Delivery of Ontario, have all resigned in the wake of the report.

On Sept. 21, Ford reversed plans to open up 7,400 acres of protected Greenbelt land in order to build homes.

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