Thursday, August 26, 2010


Let's All Go To Ontario Exhibition

Complaining about the Canadian National Exhibition, and lately, its fun neighbour, Ontario Place, is an annual summer ritual.
Too tired, nothing's new. no fun, antiquated structures. too costly, bad food etc.....
Where are the joys of yesteryear is the theme. Both the Ex and OP must compete with nostalgia, despite the fact that the good old days often weren't that good. But nostalgia is a powerful enemy because the warts are forgotten.
The media have been bitching for so long, the public may actually stop going in greater numbers. Despite the criticism, the Ex remains fourth in North America in fair attendance and is still one of the largest annual exhibitions in the world. And it makes money for the city, which sadly OP doesn't for us as provincial taxpayers.
I have had a ringside seat watching this ritualized gripe from Day One. Actually, often I was playing in the centre ring. This means i come packing a bias but it also means I actually know what I'm talking about. Which is a change for the media.
I was in charge of the Toronto Telegram's coverage of Expo 67 and wrote some of the first criticism about how dowdy it made the Ex look. Montreal's huge success with that Expo became a deep running wound for the Ex and the genesis for OP.
The provincial Tory government was giddy with the success of the Ontario Pavilion at Expo and determined to repeat it at home. It threw up its hands in despair when it was suggested it help reform the Ex and chose instead to create OP on landfill south of the Ex and abandon its building inside the Ex.
OP cost around $34 million, six times the first estimate, and was an instant architectural, tourist and cultural success. I alternated criticism of the Ex with attacks on the waste of OP, but the general reaction could be summed up by a memo from founding Sun publisher Doug Creighton. He told me I could write what I wanted but I was tiresome about OP because it was a success no matter what it had cost.
The Ex muddled along beside its glamorous neighbour/competitor while the Tories at Queen's Park continued to screw it royally. One crushing blow came when Premier Bill Davis and the most powerful municipal politician around, Paul Godfrey, decided that a domed stadium couldn't happen at the Ex because of the savage left of Toronto urban politics and it was safer to put it elsewhere.
But the power twins split the governance of the Ex into two more manageable bodies just in case the stadium still had to be built at the Ex. So the grounds and buildings of Exhibition Place are run year-round by a board of governors and the Ex, the annual fair, is run by a board of directors with much wider representation. It's so confusing, there are governors and directors who still don't understand the division.
When SkyDome was built, to use its best name, it cost an horrendous $628 million and sucked all the money and the will away from creating other major changes on the waterfront. If Davis and Godfrey (two politicians I admire) hadn't been so desperate to avoid the politics of the Ex, and had persevered and built SkyDome at the Ex, the revolution would have already happened there with a combined Ontario Exhibition. The public would have saved tens of millions of dollars and had a stadium spinning off revenue each year while it anchored a wonderful home for festivals, fairs and shows.
Instead the stadium was given away to a telemagnet and we have two places needing help. And the management there is a mess. The city runs the grounds and is the landlord for the fair. And the province runs OP. If you think it makes sense to have two sets of administrators running similar facilities just across a road from each other, then you are one of those deluded people who still think we get good government at Queen's Park and City Hall.
Even the Toronto Star thinks the two should be combined, sort of an Ontario Exhibition, and if even those dunderheads agree with the change, its need must be really obvious.
I have supported the marriage for years. And I did some shoving in columns, editorials and in person. Some veteran CNE bureaucrats were shocked but after a lifetime of being a critic, I became president of the CNE board and vice-chair of the governors.
Let me emphasize that the tragedy is that just about everyone thinks the merger would be good, that it would save money and be a greater attraction. When I lobbied Mike Harris, the premier said he agreed with me but said he had other fish to fry first.
There were meetings a few years ago between the province and the city over a merger. They flopped. Provincial people grumbled to me that the city wanted to control the new board and also be indemnified against any losses. They wanted everything their way. Yet city people told me that the province just wasn't that keen. Bureaucrats told me that the problem came over what officials would stay and who would get severance and who would pay for the packages.
It doesn't matter what the excuse was, it was obvious there was just no fire in the belly to do a deal on either side. After all, the pols felt, they were just wasting money.
Now there is a chance for change because Queen's Park has decided to rethink every part of OP, even tearing it down and starting again. Which would be a tragedy because parts of OP have become iconic, like the pods of architect Eb Zeidler, and should be saved.
The problem with too many bureaucrats and politicians is that they can't wait to demolish grand old structures and build their tacky schemes. If they had been around, one of the first great fun palaces, the Colosseum in Rome, would have been demolished 2,000 years ago. Just look at what the city did in the Ex. It tore down a useable stadium and built a costly one less than half the size which divides the grounds. At OP, the Amphitheatre does the same in hacking the site in two, just another change that Zeidler deplores.
What I'm looking forward to is a summer when the orgy of criticism about the Ex and OP doesn't happen, when the festival home on the waterfront is as big a kid magnet as the theme parks of Florida and Niagara Falls. Wouldn't it be nice to have 270 acres where parking wasn't the main surface use?
And we could fund much of it from an expanded CNE Casino (it now makes a million dollar profit in just a few weeks) No need to have a huge one, just one open from 12 to 12 five days a week. The way it is now, Torontonians just drive to lose their money. If we let them do it here, they can fund our fun.
It would be one of those win-win-win situations. And it could have happened twenty years ago.

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