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Ontario releases 'business case' for moving science centre to Ontario Place

A visitor speaks to an employee at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Friday, May 5, 2023. An analysis of the state of the Ontario Science Centre found that building a new one at Ontario Place would save the government about $250 million over 50 years, compared to rebuilding it at the current east Toronto location THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — Relocating the Ontario Science Centre from its current east Toronto location to Ontario Place would save about $250 million over 50 years — largely because the new building will be half the size — according to an analysis the provincial government is using to justify move.

Those savings — which one opposition leader called "shaky guesstimates" and another said was comparing "apples to oranges" — are among the reasons cited in a business case presented Wednesday by Infrastructure Ontario that concludes moving the attraction to a redeveloped Ontario Place on Toronto's waterfront is the better option.

"The total capital investment required to remain at Don Mills site exceeds the cost of constructing a new, more efficient OSC facility at Ontario Place as part of the government's redevelopment efforts," the report concluded.

When it opened in 1969, the Ontario Science Centre was the world's first interactive science centre, but a "lack of long-term investment in visitor experience" has led to declining attendance and the building is facing "critical deficiencies" after years of "limited" capital investments, the report said.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles said successive governments have failed to properly maintain the facility and criticized the business case as being based on "shaky 50-year guesstimates."

"This is all just a scheme to legitimize the government's shady deal ... an obsession with building a luxury spa at Ontario Place," she said.

Stiles and many others have been fighting the privately owned waterpark and spa planned for Ontario Place, and the business case noted the criticism.

"Securing a publicly owned cultural anchor, such as the OSC, could be an important addition to counter negative perceptions of the commercialization and privatization of this unique waterfront public asset," it says of Ontario Place.

Michael Lindsay, president and CEO of Infrastructure Ontario, said previous governments also considered moving the science centre there and commissioned analyses that came to similar conclusions.

The cost to restore the current building and exhibits would be $1.3 billion over 50 years, while building and operating a new science centre in a pavilion at Ontario Place would cost $1.05 billion over 50 years, the report said. 

The new facility is set to be half the size of the current one, though the government has said it will have more exhibition space because the current one has "extraneous space," with long hallways and areas not used for the public.

A "considerable" amount of the savings are due to the smaller building size, Lindsay said.

The government expects to save about $8.2 million per year with a relocated science centre "due primarily to a smaller building with significantly reduced maintenance and operating costs," the report said.

Adil Shamji, a Liberal who represents the riding that is home to the current science centre, said the business case fails to take community needs into consideration.

"It is ... at the heart of one of Toronto’s fastest growing neighbourhoods, where retaining educational and cultural programming is essential for the vibrancy of the community as opposed to concentrating it all in the downtown core," he wrote

The business case report said a "modest" increase in ticket sales is expected with the science centre relocated to Ontario Place.

Status quo at the science centre is not an option, the report said.

"(It) is in operational crisis due to a failing structure with mounting critical building maintenance costs, long term trend in declining attendance, declining revenues, and stagnant operating subsidies," the report said.

The current building is facing $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years. A building condition report in April 2022 found "multiple critical deficiencies" in roof, wall, mechanical, electrical and elevator systems, interior finishes, site features, and fire and life safety equipment.

Along with the limited capital spending in the science centre, the report said a "lack of investment in visitor experience" has led to a 40 per cent decline in attendance from 2009 to right before COVID-19 hit.

"Many of the OSC public areas and exhibits have not benefited from modernization for 10+ years," the report said. 

"Some parts of the OSC have not been updated since it opened in 1969. To remain competitive in the tourist and education market, an additional investment of $109 million is required to modernize the exhibits and undertake cosmetic improvements to the public areas."

Infrastructure Ontario ordered the science centre in June 2022 to close a pedestrian bridge connecting the main entrance to the exhibition halls after the bridge was deemed unsafe. The science centre put a shuttle service in place taking visitors from the parking lot to its rear entrance, but it says in its latest business plan that attendance figures and revenues have been negatively affected by the bridge closure.

The science centre is working with Infrastructure Ontario to evaluate options for repair and maintenance of the bridge, the business plan said. The report released Wednesday said bridge repair would cost $16 million but there is no timeline for that.

When Premier Doug Ford announced updates in April to his government's plans to redevelop Ontario Place, it included moving the science centre, and Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma cited a "business case analysis" as justification.

The government refused requests from The Canadian Press and other media outlets in April to publicly release the business case and gave itself three time extensions to fulfil a request for it under freedom-of-information legislation, with the last deadline of Sept. 20 going unacknowledged. 

Lindsay said Infrastructure Ontario has been "working diligently" with government since April to release the document.

Earlier this week, Ford and Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow announced that as part of a deal that will see the province take on the operations and costs of two highways, the levels of government will discuss keeping some science programming at the existing science centre location.

The city owns the land, and the province has a long-term lease to operate the science centre there.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2023.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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