Given this week’s stunning news — that the RCMP has launched a criminal investigation of the Greenbelt land deals and that Ontario’s auditor-general (AG) has initiated a probe of the Ford government’s use of Ministerial Zoning Orders to expand urban boundaries — there can no longer be any ambiguity about what has to happen next:
Ontario’s AG now needs to open a file on the Ontario Place redevelopment scheme. The Ontario NDP, which succeeded in advocating for the original Greenbelt investigation, has called for such a probe, and so has Ontario Place for All, the local advocacy group.
It shouldn’t take place soon or eventually; this step has to happen immediately.
The reason is as plain as day: the pattern of political behaviour that led to the Greenbelt fiasco, as well as some of the province’s most client-focused MZOs, maps precisely onto the chain of events that have brought us to the very cusp of an unfixable disaster on the waterfront.
All the leitmotifs present in those other scandals are also visible in the Ontario Place plan: the government’s contempt for process, transparency and environmental stewardship; the quid-pro-quos; and the utter lack of daylight between the proponents and the premier’s office.
What distinguishes the Ontario Place deal, but provides further cause for an arm’s length AG probe, is that an ostensibly fiscally conservative government is willing to allocate untold amounts of public funding to ensure that its client, an obscure Austrian wellness outfit whose finances are a veritable black-box, is insulated from market risk in virtual perpetuity.
Auditors-general are tasked with ensuring value for money, and if there was ever a public sector boondoggle that demanded this particular form of scrutiny, the Tories’ sweetheart deal with Therme is it.
Let’s take them in order…
Abuse of Process
In Premier Doug Ford’s mandate letter to the then minister of tourism, culture and sport, he instructs MPP Sylvia Jones to come up with options to “properly develop Ontario Place,” which he describes as a “once in a lifetime opportunity [that] should be a priority for your Ministry.” But the so-called process, the Call for Development, issued in 2019, essentially puts the entire facility up for sale. “There are no limitations,” it read, “on use and/or retention of existing assets on the Site, with the exception of the Budweiser Stage [emphasis added].”
The subsequent procurement process, which produced the Therme proposal, lacked a fairness commissioner, detail about project financing and public information on other proposals for the site. What’s more — and this seems like a highly salient detail — the 38 other bidders were told, in the Call for Development document, that the site had adequate parking, and that they should fashion their proposals accordingly. It was only after the government (via Infrastructure Ontario) selected Therme that it announced the construction of a massive five-level parking garage — an unambiguous commercial benefit to Therme that was never made available to the other bidders.
Lack of Transparency
The t-word, tellingly, does not appear once in the mandate letters obtained by Global News. In that sense, the government has been consistent by signing and then refusing to disclose its 95-year lease with Therme. Taxpayers don’t know how much, if anything, Therme is paying to rent this land, or any other salient details, e.g., the allocation of residual rights after the lease expires, conditional rights to re-zone the land, etc. The disdain the Tories have shown for the public’s right to know is breathtaking.
Value for Money
Does anyone know how much capital cost Ontarians will incur to see this project through? The figure the province put out on the cost of remediating and servicing the land — $200 million — is clearly a ball park number, and pre-dates the pandemic, with all the subsequent inflation in everything.
It’s by no means clear what all the much-hyped lake-filling will cost — those public space accommodations appeared only after the government released its estimate on rehabbing the site. The cost of the parking garage has never been made public (the widely cited $450 million figure is an estimate that first surfaced in media reports), nor has the cost of relocating the Science Centre.
The government has also ordered Metrolinx to conjure up a shuttle bus service to run between the CNE transit stations and the front door of the spa — an explicit operating subsidy to Ontario Place’s for-profit tenants, and one that presumably wouldn’t be available to other private projects that find themselves at a remove from multi-billion transit investments. What’s the bottom line on all this? Or, more aptly, the limit?
Contempt for environmental/climate policy
Besides the insanity of clear-cutting 800 half-century-old trees in the midst of a climate crisis, the proposed spa structure is an energy hog that will require herculean measures to mitigate its gas and electricity consumption, as well as its impact on migratory birds. As I reported in this space last week, climate activists have estimated that the Manchester Therme will consume enough energy and water to satisfy the needs of a community of 3,000 to 6,000 homes.
The environmental story also mirrors the Greenbelt scandal in that the government enacted a bespoke loophole in the Environmental Assessment Act that allowed Therme to avoid an EA, even though it is a project that will be built on public land, at the request of the government, and subsidized to the tune of hundreds of millions in public funds.
Generous ‘quid pro quo’
Therme made a point of establishing partnerships, which come with funding attached, with a carefully curated group of external cheerleaders, including SwimDrinkFish, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Mississaugas of the Credit Frist Nation. The first two have severed those connections, which were clearly intended to acquire a flow of positive PR (thus the quid-pro-quo) during the approvals process.
Therme’s decision to spend money on a hearts-and-minds campaign strongly echoes a similar tactic used by Sidewalk Labs (and the Ford family’s wedding guests). Both entities are/were being advised by Strategy Corp., which has strong ties to the Tory government.
Where to start? Mark Lawson, who is Therme Canada’s highest profile executive, worked in Ford’s office and before that, as chief of staff for the minister of finance, Edward Birnbaum, a new hire announced last week, came from John Tory’s staff, and Simon Bredin, a Therme spokesperson, worked formerly for Navigator.
Therme’s top strategy consultant, John Perenack, is a veteran Tory-side lobbyist whose clients have previously included convenience store chains looking to secure liquor licenses and Ellis Don, the construction powerhouse which has won numerous Infrastructure Ontario tenders, including, as it happens, the 2022 deal (dollar-value unknown) to serve as the general contractor for the Ontario Place site services replacement project.
A subset of the abuse of process piece, the province, through IO, has gone through the motions of seeking municipal approval, both for a development application as well as a zoning bylaw amendment to change the approved use of the West Island from public open space to commercial. But despite the fact that City Council has not yet formally approved the application, nor the proposal to significantly expand the West Island by lake-filling, IO’s project managers have been shutting down parts of Ontario Place, dismantling important structures, and are evidently preparing to begin site preparation, including the removal of hundreds of trees and excavation for new gas and water lines.
The fact that Queen’s Park has greenlighted its contractors to move ahead not only suggests bad faith, and also hints at a calculated political tactic, which is that if Ellis Don’s crews fell all those trees, the political opposition to Therme will crumble in a dejected heap.
Surely — surely! — there’s enough smoke billowing from this dumpster of a file to send out the fire trucks.