Auditor general probing Ford government's Ontario Place redevelopment

The province's auditor general is moving ahead with a value-for-money audit of the Ford government's controversial Ontario Place redevelopment.

Province faces strong opposition to private water park, spa on Ontario Place grounds

A runner strides along a bridge at Ontario Place, with construction in the background.
The under-construction grounds of Ontario Place are pictured on Friday. Therme Canada had its main water park and spa building redesigned earlier this year after concerns from the public and Toronto city staff that the original design was too large. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The province's auditor general is moving ahead with a value-for-money audit of the Ford government's controversial Ontario Place redevelopment.

A spokesperson for the auditor general confirmed the investigation to CBC Toronto on Friday, and also said the office would be auditing the Ontario Science Centre, which is set to be moved to the Ontario Place grounds in 2025. The news of both probes was first reported by Global. 

"As these audits are currently in progress, we cannot comment on them further," the spokesperson said in an email.

Premier Doug Ford and his government have faced considerable public opposition to their Ontario Place plan, which includes a long-term lease on the site's West Island for Austria-based company Therme to build a sprawling, private indoor water park and spa.

The updated development application, submitted to the City of Toronto this fall, also includes roughly 16 acres of public parkland on the West Island, including a new beach, boardwalk and cycling trails. 

The province has earmarked some $650 million in public funds for infrastructure upgrades across the Ontario Place grounds and a new 2,000-space underground parking garage, in addition to 600 new ground-level spaces, it says is necessary to accommodate visitors to the redeveloped site.

Ford announced in April that the Ontario Science Centre, currently located in northeast Toronto, would be moved to the Ontario Place grounds as part of the wider redevelopment. 

A request for an auditor general's probe into the province's plan was made by Ontario Place for All, the primary group organizing public opposition to the project, last December. NDP Leader Marit Stiles also wrote a letter in support of the group's request.

In a follow up email to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for the auditor general's said the audits were "were identified through our normal selection process."

LISTEN | Ontario Place for All co-chair on what the audit could produce:

Featured VideoNorm Di Pasquale is the co-chair of the group Ontario Place for All. He reacts to the news as first reported by Global.

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

"Through that process, a family-friendly water park and wellness facility and a brand-new concert venue were selected to transform Ontario Place into a year-round destination," the spokesperson said.

"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," they added.

Meanwhile, Stiles said the New Democrats welcome the probes. 

"People know this is a bad deal for Ontario, and I'm confident the Auditor General's report will confirm that," she said in a statement that also called for site preparation work at Ontario Place, which began in earnest this fall, to be put on hold until the audits are complete.

Last month, the NDP tabled a motion in the legislature calling for the lease with Therme to be cancelled, but it was voted down by the Progressive Conservatives.

Simon Bredin, spokesperson for Therme Canada, said Friday that the company looks forward to engaging with the auditor general's office. 

"We're confident he will find that Therme's participation in the revitalization of Ontario Place brings excellent value for Ontarians," he said.

"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, he added.

Toronto mayor, some councillors oppose plan

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and several city councillors, including Spadina-Fort York Coun. Ausma Malik, whose ward includes the Ontario Place grounds, have also said they are opposed to the province's redevelopment plan. Malik has filed a motion, to be considered by city council next week, that would see city staff explore locating the water park and spa on the Exhibition Place grounds instead.

While promoting the government's decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre, Kinga has repeatedly said that a business case showed it was the right move. She has thus far declined to make that case public, saying last April that the province was "triple checking" the numbers before releasing it.

In the statement Friday, Kinga's spokesperson said the relocated Science Centre will have more exhibition space and be more easily accessed by the public. 

"The Ontario Science Centre board voted unanimously in favour of the decision to move to Ontario Place, and we're confident in our decision," the spokesperson said.

Ford's government has spent the last several months mired in controversy after an auditor general's report into its Greenbelt land swaps precipitated the resignations of two cabinet ministers and several high-level government staffers.