Ontario Place: What could have been, might still be

By Allison Smith November 4, 2019

Last week the World Monuments Fund added Ontario Place to its 2020 list of World Monuments To Watch list alongside iconic sites like Easter Island and Notre-Dame in Paris.

The international organization, which advocates for cultural conservation, laments the devolution of the province’s vision for Ontario Place, from its opening in 1971 “when governments proudly invested in expanding access to the arts, education, health care, justice, and recreation,” to the site’s status under the current PC government that “now seeks to offer a long-term lease to the site, with little care for maintaining the heritage values associated with Ontario Place, and without public consultation that would allow citizens’ voices to be heard.”

Queen’s Park Today has obtained a list of the 24 companies and partnerships that made submissions to the Ministry of Heritage, Tourism, Sport and Culture’s hunt for an anchor tenant at Ontario Place’s West Island two years ago. 

In July 2017, the former Kathleen Wynne government requested proposals for innovative and futuristic development plans for the 155 acres of provincially owned land. 

After taking office last year, Premier Doug Ford scrapped the Wynne-era submissions and started from scratch with a new request for private-sector development proposals last May. The PCs have ruled out the construction of a casino or residential development and will also require bidders to include 7.5 acres of parkland and maintain the Budweiser Stage music venue. 

The Ford government’s application process closed in late September and submissions are still under wraps. Companies cannot discuss their proposals thanks to non-disclosure agreements. 

A spokesperson for Tourism Minister Lisa MacLeod recently told the CBC that a public consultation process is on the way, saying the government will ask stakeholders for “their input later in this process.” 

It is not known whether the companies that made submissions in 2017 have re-applied, but at least one — Therme Group Canada Ltd. — was actively lobbying the City of Toronto ahead the September submission deadline. 

Therme Group is an indoor-outdoor spa company headquartered in Vienna, Austria, that boasts its ability to spur tourism, create jobs and improve wellness in the cities where it operates. It operates several “spa domes” in Europe and has projects in the works in China and the U.K. 

Its website says a project in North America is under development. An artistic reproduction features a spa on the waterfront of a large city. 

The Kilmer Group applied in 2017 in partnership with the Canadian National Exhibition Association and is also rumoured to have resubmitted a proposal. A March 2019 document outlining the Kilmer Group’s vision for “OPX” — an ambitious plan that includes building a convention centre, hotel and transit hub, relocating the Ontario Science Centre to the Ontario Place grounds, and repurposing the site’s iconic “pods” — signals the firm is still keen on the redevelopment project. 

The Globe and Mail reports Carl Demarco, a former executive of World Wrestling Entertainment Canada, also has a bid in the running. Demarco’s lawyer told the Globe his proposal does not involve wrestling, but would be a year-round “world-class, iconic development” that would attract international tourism. 

The list of 2017 submissions, which was obtained via a Freedom of Information request, provides clues as to what Ontario Place might have been if the decision had been made by the former Wynne government. 

A number of museum ideas were pitched, including the Ontario Auto Museum, World Water Museum, Golden Horseshoe Museum of Natural Science and History, and Children’s Discovery Centre. Tides Canada’s Indigenous Place Making Council also made a bid — the organization seeks to restore Indigenous presence to Canadian communities.

Blue Rhino Design, an Ontario-based architecture firm that recently designed the Illusuak Cultural Centre in Labrador and the Saskatchewan Science Centre, also put in a bid. 

On the post-secondary front, a bid came in from Collège Boréal, a French-language college with seven campuses across the province. 

The Dynamic Hospitality Group was also on the 2017 long list. The company operates the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy bars, as well as other GTA event spaces. A joint submission came from Embrace TNG Inc. and Sole Power Productions, both of which are in the live music industry. Another came from the Toronto Events and Marketing Group Inc.

The Eden Project International is the bidder with the most in common with Therme. Headed-up by U.K. businessman Sir Tim Smit, the company wants to create “Edens around the world.” The existing “Eden” is in Cornwall, U.K., and boasts rainforest and Mediterranean biomes, zip lines and other attractions. Other “Edens” are in the works in China, Australia and New Zealand. 

Add Treetop Trekking Canada Inc., which operates zip line parks and hiking experiences, and Écorécréo, a company that rents bikes, paddle boards and kayaks in Old Montreal, to the list of outdoor adventure companies who hoped to operate on the provincial grounds.  

A firm that wants to operate a water transportation service between Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines and downtown Toronto also wants in on the Ontario Place game. Lake Ontario Express Inc. says it is currently developing hovercraft technology.

A company called Hoverlink Ontario Inc. is also on the list. 

The rest of the bidders were architectural firms or groups of firms who specialize in a range of development areas. 

Before the writ dropped last spring, the Wynne government had whittled this list down to a short list of three, but it is not known which bidders made the cut. 

The government’s previously active webpage outlining Ontario Place development plans, ontarioplacedevelopment.com, has been taken down.