Ontario Place redevelopment faces new hurdles after private partner exits


Ontario Place opened on Toronto’s waterfront in 1971 and closed in 2012 amid declining attendance numbers. Although some of the land remained a popular park, parts of it fell into disuse.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

One of the three companies chosen to redevelop Ontario Place has pulled out of the project, raising new questions about the future of the spot on Toronto’s waterfront.

Quebec-based adventure tourism provider Écorécréo is no longer involved, according to two senior sources in the provincial government, which oversees the site.

The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources, who are not authorized to speak publicly. No one was available at Écorécréo to speak by phone Wednesday and an e-mail to one of its founders did not receive a response.

“I hope it’s a trend,” said Cindy Wilkey, a waterfront advocate and member of the group Ontario Place for All, which has opposed the redevelopment plans.

She noted some mixed feelings as the Écorécréo proposal might have included the most financially accessible offerings on the site, but added that it would have cluttered an important area of ​​the site.

“The pods, the Cinesphere, the landscape are iconic. The more junk you put around it … all that gets lost.”

Still involved in the site’s redevelopment is the Austrian spa and waterpark provider Therme Group, whose $350-million proposal is the biggest part of the project. And the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based concert promoter Live Nation, whose Canadian arm runs an existing outdoor live-music venue at Ontario Place, is going to expand its site there.

The three companies were announced with much fanfare last summer and construction was expected to begin as early as 2024. However, choosing these three took years of a stop-and-start bid process and it’s unclear how quickly a new firm could step in with a plan that meshes with the rest of the site.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure said the schedule shouldn’t change.

“We don’t anticipate any impacts to the project’s timeline,” wrote Sofia Sousa-Dias. “Repair work on the Cinesphere, pods, and bridges is proceeding on-schedule this fall. Site servicing, including sewage, water, electrical, and gas, is expected to begin in the spring of 2023. We are on track to bringing Ontario Place back to life.”

Ontario Place opened in 1971 and closed in 2012 amid declining attendance numbers. While some of the land remained a popular park, parts of it fell into disuse.

The previous Liberal provincial government solicited bids for new uses for the site before that process ran out of time and the Grits lost the 2018 election. That vote transferred power to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives.

The Tories restarted the bid process, with provincial documents specifying that 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.”

While the documents say no taxpayer subsidies are on offer, they 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 estimates dating to when the Liberals were still in power, was budgeted at $100-million.

The waterfront has drawn Ford’s attention since his days in local politics. And as Premier, he has taken an active interest in Ontario Place. After months of speculation about his plans for the site, the government in 2019 ruled out condos or any new casino.

The province said, also in 2019, that it planned to lease and not sell the land. The open-ended bid process 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 Center 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.

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