Ontario Place revival could include urban spa, convention centre amid concerns over 'backroom' deals

Premier Doug Ford’s government is gearing up to select the bidder who will transform Ontario Place into a “year-round” destination. But there’s still little public information about what the iconic waterfront site could become — prompting one city councillor to warn about the threat of a "backroom deal."

Submission period closed, but still few details about what iconic site might become

Ontario Place sits on 155 acres of land, making it some of the most valuable real estate in the country. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Premier Doug Ford's government is gearing up to select the bidder who will transform Ontario Place into a "year-round" destination.

The submission period closed in late September, but there's still little public information about what the iconic waterfront site could become in the years ahead — prompting one city councillor to warn about the threat of a "backroom deal."

"We are going to bring Ontario Place back to life and once again make it a spectacular destination attracting local and international visitors year-round," said Derek Rowland, a spokesperson for Tourism, Culture and Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod, in a statement. 

"This could include exciting sport and entertainment landmarks, public spaces and parks, recreational facilities, as well as retail."

So which direction will provincial officials go?

With updates not coming until a "later date," and details about the submissions protected by non-disclosure agreements, it's hard to say — though condos and casinos have so far been ruled out.

Several possible contenders, however, are becoming clear.

Range of possible contenders

Six months ago, developer Ken Tanenbaum and urban planner Joe Berridge of the Kilmer Group publicly released a transformational proposal for both Ontario Place and Exhibition Place — dubbed "OPX."

When asked by CBC Toronto if the company has since submitted a formal bid to the province, a spokesperson for Tanenbaum declined to comment based on "confidentiality."

According to the documents from earlier this year, the Kilmer Group's sweeping vision for the site includes an expanded convention centre, new LiveNation and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment event centre, indoor-outdoor waterpark, restaurant with a view of the lake, an urban farm, mixed-use development, and park space.

The plan also aims to re-purpose the Cinesphere and pods — and proposes moving the Ontario Science Centre to the Ontario Place grounds from its current location in North York.

The Kilmer Group released this image of a remodelled Ontario Place six months ago.

An Austrian company known for developing massive indoor spas — complete with indoor and outdoor pools, palm trees and saunas — could also be hoping to open another "tropical paradise" at the Ontario Place site. 

The city's lobbyist registry features multiple lobbying attempts over the last few months from consultants tied to Therme Group, all to "inform the City of a proposal in regards to Ontario Place."

The company owns multiple spa locations around the world, including a 250,000-square-metre relaxation complex near Bucharest, Romania which features a 560-square-metre wave pool, 1,500 palm trees, and 30,000 square metres of sandy beach.

This is a domed spa by Therme Group and an example of something that could be coming to Ontario Place. (Therme Group)

Meanwhile, Toronto businessman — and former World Wrestling Entertainment executive — Carl Demarco is definitely among the bidders, according to a Globe and Mail report.

His lawyer confirmed to the Globe that Demarco, who's a former manager for Canadian wrestling star Bret "The Hitman" Hart, is a participant in the province's process, and has assembled a team to meet the government's criteria for the site.

It's not clear what his vision is, but one thing is for sure, according to the report: it won't be wrestling-related.

Concern over 'backroom deal'

With no official details actually released on who submitted bids, critics say keeping the process behind closed doors does a disservice to the public.

"It has unfolded without any meaningful consultation with the community," said Cynthia Wilkey, member of the Ontario Place For All steering committee.

Wilkey is among those calling on the province to release the proposals publicly, along with Coun. Joe Cressy.

"Ontario Place represents 155 acres of publicly-owned land, real estate that is arguably amongst the most valuable in the entire country," Cressy said.

"And we have a process being run in the backrooms — Doug Ford's backrooms — and I'm concerned that a backroom deal is going to be made as well."

On Thursday, Rowland — the ministry spokesperson — said public consultation will be part of the process.

"We recognize how important Ontario Place is to all Ontarians, including our Indigenous communities and major sector stakeholders, and will value their input later in this process," he said.


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