I wasn’t one of those people who was upset when Ontario Place was shut down—I had gone a few times in the past couple years with my kids (did anyone ever go there for anything but a concert or a reception at Atlantis without kids?) and found it kind of okay. But it was expensive to park (and murder to get to by any method other than car), expensive to enter, expensive to eat. I’d wander around and wonder why we needed this vast expanse of waterfront land devoted to a second-rate, expensive children’s preserve.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you come at me with your nostalgia for running around amid the punching-bag things and riding ziplines and concrete waterslides when you were a child in the 1980s or whatever. Fine. Those were good times. But whether the number of attendees was 300,000 in 2010 or 880,000 in 2011 (as the Star reports today), that’s still a relative ghost-town for the 39-hectare park, especially when you consider a quarter million of those 2011 visitors were there for concerts at the Molson Amphitheatre (people who would have attended the same concerts if they were at another venue, presumably) leaving actual park attendance—including CNE visitors crossing the bridge—at about 625,000. The Toronto Islands, by contrast, draw more than 2 million visitors a year, and High Park, the ROM, and the Toronto Zoo attract well over a million annual visits each.
And I personally quite liked a lot of elements of John Tory’s proposal—especially the uncontroversial suggestion that the new park be free and be more accessible by transit and otherwise, and more especially his controversial suggestion that some of the land be used for residential and commercial development, which would create a neighbourhood around the park. It seems to me that having a residential population there would be among the surest ways to make it a lively place.
But anyhow, all of that aside, this report from Bob Hepburn of the Star about the apparent falsehood of the province’s justifications for shuttering the existing Ontario Place is a big concern:
When the provincial government announced the sudden closure in February of Ontario Place, it portrayed the waterfront park as a money-losing disaster. But, in fact, Ontario Place was not on the ropes. Indeed, the Toronto waterfront park was well on its way to a dramatic turnaround, with overall attendance, revenues and visitor satisfaction up significantly in 2011, documents obtained by the Star indicate.
[...] However, the documents obtained by the Star show Ontario Place attendance in 2011 actually rose 89 per cent over 2010 levels. They also show revenues from rides, ground admissions, concessions and retail sales and Cinesphere tickets also increased dramatically last year. Importantly, the documents indicate the park was on track to operate at a break-even point by 2015 — just three years from now. Also, they show that Ontario Place was about to enter the 2012 season with plans to drive attendance and revenues even higher, largely due to more than $10 million in improvements approved by Queen’s Park in areas such as the popular water park and Cinesphere. By releasing mostly outdated statistics, the McGuinty government created the impression that Ontario Place was not turning around, but instead had flatlined.
Even with the numbers cited by the province earlier, the shuttering of the attraction was not really going to make any kind of dent in the province’s bottom line, and it appears it will make even less of a dent than they claimed—and the park was projected to be self-sustaining by 2015. So why did the province mislead us—if the Star‘s reporting is accurate—about their reasons for closing the park and why did they really close the park in such a hurry? The apparent charade here is a far bigger concern, in my opinion, than the action of closing the park itself. Because if the plan was just to reinvent the space to be a better and more active part of city life—an entirely justifiable reason—why create this picture of grim disaster forcing their hand? It suggests, as Hepburn suggests, a hidden motive (a sell-off, a casino, etc.). Which tends to dim the hope that the reinvented Ontario Place might become a real jewel of a public space on the city’s waterfront.
UPDATE: The Star‘s numbers may be telling a misleading story too.
Photo: DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR