Casino isn't 'off the table' as Ford government takes aim at Ontario Place

Premier Doug Ford's government took a giant step toward taking control of the future of Ontario Place this week, but some critics argue the redevelopment doesn't have to "reinvent the wheel."

Premier's ideas for Toronto's waterfront are 'tired' and shouldn't 'reinvent the wheel,' critics warn

The previous Liberal government was planning a massive public park for Ontario Place. The province's current government, however, says it wants the site to be a "world-class" entertainment attraction. (CBC)

Premier Doug Ford's government took a giant step toward taking control of the future of Ontario Place this week, but some critics argue the redevelopment doesn't have to "reinvent the wheel."

The Progressive Conservatives tabled legislation, Bill 57, alongside Thursday's fall economic statement that includes clauses dissolving the corporation and public board overseeing management of Ontario Place — an underused entertainment venue that sits on prime waterfront real estate.

The act would transfer all assets to the Crown, but two Toronto councillors — perhaps remembering Doug Ford's push for a waterfront ferris wheel and casino during his tenure at city hall — stress the importance of converting the space into parkland as the PCs consider their next move.

"The government should pick up where the last government left off and start looking at those ideas that were striking their interest," Coun. Mike Layton told CBC Toronto. 

He issued a joint-statement with Spadina-Fort York Coun. Joe Cressy, whose ward includes Ontario Place, asking that Toronto residents be consulted during the decision-making process.

"Any potential changes to Ontario Place must be made in the public interest," the statement read. 

"And, let us be clear — a casino at Ontario Place does not represent the responsible use of valued public lands."

What's the future of Ontario Place?

Finance Minister Vic Fideli was tight-lipped about the province's plans for Ontario Place on Friday, saying it should become a "world-class attraction."

In previous years, casinos, residential development and large-scale music events have all been proposed for the land.

"We're going to spend a considerable amount of time looking at what we can do there to make best use of that jewel," Fedeli told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

When asked if the iconic site would be developed with a casino, Fedeli stated "nothing's off the table."

"We're going to look at every single possibility to make that a world-class centre," he said.

The Leader of the Official Opposition, Andrea Horwath, however, warned the move could be the first step toward selling Ontario Place to private interests.

"It will be easier to sell if it is entirely owned by the Crown," she said, adding that the current public board would present an obstacle to doing just that.

Liberals envisioned massive park

The city's waterfront has been radically transformed over the last decade.

In July 2017, Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government unveiled Trillium Park, a sprawling green space, on what was once an Ontario Place staff parking lot.

The $30 million, 7.5 acre urban park transformed the eastern edge of the island and is connected to the city by the William G. Davis recreational trail, which was named after the premier who launched Ontario Place in 1971.

This was the beginning of a broader revitalization to preserve the natural beauty of Toronto's western waterfront and make it a free, year-round destination for residents.

Trillium Park, a public waterfront park on the Ontario Place grounds, opened in 2017 and replaced a parking lot. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

The old Ontario Place was an amusement park for 41 years before the cash-strapped Liberals decided to shut it down. Annual attendance had dropped from 2.5 million when it was built to about 300,000 visitors at the time of its closure in 2012.

Then-premier Dalton McGuinty tasked John Tory, now the mayor of Toronto, with examining what should be done with the site. Tory's panel recommended Ontario Place should be a year-round attraction that showcases art, culture and diversity, and protects sightlines to the water.

Falling attendance forced the previous Liberal government to close Ontario Place in 2012 and begin a plan to revitalize Toronto's western lakeshore. (Mike Crawley/CBC)

The Liberals were in the final stages of selecting a private sector developer to rebuild the other half of the 96-acre lakefront landmark into a massive park called Celebration Common when Wynne's government suffered a colossal defeat in the provincial election last June.

This left plans for the future of Ontario Place up in the air with Ford at the helm. 

Ford pitched building ferris wheel or casino

During his time on city council, the premier mused about elaborate and controversial ideas for Toronto's waterfront.

Ford advocated scrapping decades of planning done by Waterfront Toronto, and pitched the development of a massive ferris wheel in the Port Lands.

He also wanted to see a casino on the Exhibition grounds, and mused about a giant mall that would house some of the biggest retailers in the world and proposed a monorail to link it all. City council defeated all those plans after it was roundly panned by urban planning experts and the public. 

Layton, who represents Ward 11, University-Rosedale, called Ford's scheme a "tired old idea" that stirred public outcry. 

"We were excited about the direction the province was taking," he told CBC Toronto.

Coun. Mike Layton is urging the province to convert the public land at Ontario Place into a park. (CBC)

Celebration Common was a proposed green space the size of 14 football fields that will host festivals and community events.

Although that work was set to take years, Layton pointed out the end result would improve the quality of life for many Torontonians as the city becomes increasingly more crowded and starved for parkland.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel every time and go back to the drawing board," he said.

"Don't start all over again."

With files from Lisa Xing