Thursday, September 1, 2011



Writing about the CNE reminds me of what Liz Taylor's eighth husband is alleged to have said. He knew what was expected but wondered how to make it interesting.
But let's consider the state of the petticoats on what we call the Grand Old Lady of the Lakeshore.  I think we can give her an easy makeover.
After all, the Ex this year is great. The grounds look great. The free entertainment is great. The families wandering in clouds of sugar highs and midway bewitchings are happy.
Yet it all could be better.  I'm not here to put a hex on the Ex, which has been the oneupmanship game since the Ex began in 1879, but to sell you on how the annual fair could be improved and anchor a new year-round festival centre.
It has a huge start with its international rep.  At 1.3 million in attendance, it is the largest in Canada (yep, larger than the Stampede) and fifth largest in the world among such attractions.
It makes money for taxpayers - more than $7 million in the last decade - while employing more than 6,000 for back-to-school cash, but it could make more.
It could and should be combined with the financial loser, Ontario Place (OP), which seems to have lost its way. The two would blossom with a synergy that would bring savings which could be invested in new attractions.
That recent KPMG study for City Hall floated the idea of selling Exhibition Place. Or combining the two Ex boards. Or combining the Ex and OP.  The study talked about a 5% saving in administration costs. Surely it would be higher if all the duplication was eliminated.
Activities beyond the 18-day fair could be increased. The grounds could and should be the primary home for walkathons and marathons. Why close expressways and vital traffic arteries when an interesting course would be around the Ex/OP and then along the lakeshore to High Park and its hills and leafy vales. It's dumb to screw traffic when such an alternative exists.
The Ex and OP could be united by short grass-covered tunnels for the Lakeshore, The transportation corridor that hems it in on the north could be covered by what was called the Parkdale Platform when it was proposed decades ago. The bizarre traffic patterns through its westend, which resemble drunken scrawls by traffic engineers, should be corrected. There's no need to strangle the Ex with roads and rail,  and more park could be created from the duplicate expanses of parking.
Let me reveal my conflicts before being unmasked by critics who love to trash the Ex without actually going there.  I was one of its fiercest critics but evolved into becoming the CNE president and vice-chair of the Exhibition Place governors, the landlords. I wrote part of the CNE history and sit on a committee hashing out a new deal with the governors.  I have often written about an Ex/OP merger on
But enough back-patting.  Few visitors care about the politics there, which can be fierce, or the history, which can't be recaptured. You no longer go to the Ex to see the freaks or the newest technology, whether electric trams, public lighting, TVs or the latest cars. The Ex is no longer opened by royalty and famous generals. The crowds have shrunk as the country changed.
Yet you still want to be entertained. And to see interesting stuff.  And to buy. I really don't understand that last bit, and neither does my wife, but we have two chairs in the living room that we saw there, and there's a "spirit house" column in the back yard that a son bought there.
There's something for everyone, a smorgasbord where the trick is not to fill up on the salad. I am credited at the Ex with the line that if it didn't exist, the city would have to invent it.  It's still true, even if you feel you're wading through "treasures" from Asia.
The Ex boasts about its benefits to the community, about direct economic impact in 2009 to Toronto of $58 million, and of $60 million to the province. I 'm always suspicious about how they arrive at such figures but there's little doubt it feeds the economic pot by its existence.
At the opening this year, the gag was the Ex was a "calorie free zone."  Fran Berkoff grumbled in the Sunday Sun about all the calories in the often goofy fair food. She's a smart lady but she misses that fairs are a traditional time to forget diets. In fact, surveys by fairs, like the California fair association, show that exotic food is a great lure to a fair.
So is just watching a wandering clown, or Neil Sedaka, or the parades, or the human cannonball, or those planes......

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