Sunday, February 5, 2012



It was Tory penis envy. This time over a place.
When Ontario Place opened its three islands to the people whom Bill Davis hoped would continue to vote for his revamped Conservatives, it could trace its raison d'etre to the huge success of Expo '67, the Montreal world's fair that left Toronto, and Ontarians,  greener with envy than any environmental activist.
Now the province had scored a coup itself at Expo with the deserved success of the Ontario Pavilion and its catchy theme song A Place To Stand A Place To Grow. It became a provincial anthem even before Hollywood noticed and gave an Academy Award to a documentary about the pavilion which featured that song.
Expo made the Canadian National Exhibition look like a really Old Lady of the Lakeshore. And the Tories, hunting for ways to retread their reign, figured they would reproduce Ontario Pavilion, and all the zany and interesting architecture and media gimmicks of Expo, right on the capital's waterfront on bridges and fill, just like Montreal did in the St. Lawrence.
Queen's Park presence at the CNE was wrapped up in the triangular Ontario Government Building, which featured tanks of fish and pens ofwild life in its courtyard.  Kids loved the wild life displays, but they weren't flashy enough for the Tories who wanted to create an image that they knew what came next in life.
They chose a cigar-chomping wiz called Kirk Foley, technically only director of economics in the finance ministry, to be the Moses leading them to new votes. First it was OB, then the disaster known as the Urban Transportation Development Corp. which tried to make mag lev trains work several decades before China did at an airport.
 Left behind in the dust of really old Toronto was the provincial Ex building, which evolved into the first CNE Casino, and its initials OGB were said then by staff in cheeky racism to stand for the Oriental Gambling Building. (Because Canadians from Asia sure outnumbered the staid Torontonians.) Now it's evolved graciously into the Liberty Grand, and I'm proud to boast I moved the approval motion.
The irony now that the end of OP's first era has arrived is the certainty that it couldn't be built today. Do you really think that radicals of city council  and Ontario politics would tolerate the government sinking several old freighters as a breakwall and doing those great costly creations of Eb Zeidler on fill?
If you have survived to your 70s in Toronto, you remember driving the Lake Shore when it really was the lake shore because the lake came right to the iron railing beside the road.  Most of the land that now extends south of the road, from Marilyn Bell Park in the west to Coronation Park in the east, has been created by man. It was the way Toronto grew until recently. They just were copying all the landfill that created much of the Ex, the waterfront and Toronto Island.
As proof that all that landfill wouldn't happen today, I cite as my witness Tony O'Donohue, the veteran city politician and municipal engineer, who was hired in the 1980s to develop a scheme that not only would have enlarged OP with a useful island created from all the earth being dug out by construction, the scheme would have produced a million dollars for the city.
It was blown out of the water, so to speak.
The days of Ottawa and Queen's Park using their powers to ignore city council when they built OP and the CN Tower without permits or any form of permission are long gone. I guess I should say thank heavens for that in honour of city democracy but we did get iconic buildings as a result, like Cinesphere.
Then there was the minor problems of costs. Premier Davis and his aides like Claire Westcott, who had clever ideas about just about everything,  downplayed costs, of course, when they set out to win elections with a modern fun park on the lake off the Ex and fancy trains without drivers or wheels floating on elevated guideways around the Ex.
The UTDC costs were enormous, confused and hidden. OP was said to be budgeted at $5 million, is now said to have cost $29 million, and I used to use the figure $34.5 million without the Tories getting too incensed.
The problem was, just as the obscene building rush later at SkyDome, that anything goes when politicians and their captive bureaucrats are drunk with the need to open as quickly as possible.
I wrote after the flush of excitement had died out after the OP opening that the government even paid triple time to the guys fashioning the cloakrooms, hardly an essential.
After months of bashing away in my column at OP and the new spending monster called UTDC, I passed Doug Creighton, the founding Sun publisher, in the hallway. He remarked he was getting tired of my criticism and having to field calls next morning from powerful Tories.
He had a strong argument against me. "Damn it, John," he said. "The public loves Ontario Place."
And they did too. A fact I went to great pains to note that evening when I wrote another column bashing OP.
Doug, of course, never mentioned it again, which was another great thing about the Toronto Sun during its baby steps.
OP in its early days bought acceptance with clever ideas and marketing, bolstered by free passes that rained on the media and any useful person. My favourite moment was lounging on a grassy knoll and watching the Toronto Symphony brass its way through the patriotic stew known as the Last Night At the Proms. All free at the Forum, which was too bucolic and nice and not large enough for the hot money dreams of OP bureaucrats who only seemed to know how to lose a lot of money.
So the Forum hardened and expanded into the Ampitheatre. Successful for a time because it didn't have to deal with unions, compliments, strangely,  of Bob Rae's NDP government.
Just to the north, Exhibition Stadium, which was saddled with unions, couldn't compete because it cost $31,000 just to open and run for a night. I brokered a deal as a CNEA executive that we would cover those costs and give the stadium free to any promoter who was willing to stage an event that would bring people to the Ex. No promoter was interested.
 Then the city used the $5.5 million repair fund put aside from ticket revenue to demolish it, a stupid move, and then built, in another stupid move, a smaller stadium for $72 million in a deal that benefitted mainly MLSE, the millionaires who soak us with the lamentable Leafs.
I can't wait to see what happens at OP next. Merging it with the CNE has been so logical, it has been proposed by just about every one of the hordes who have studied the taxes being wasted by OP.
Then there's the idea of having a casino there. Of course the OP staff aren't exactly ecstatic about that because they know Queen's Park would grab all the revenue.
One useful deal would be for OP and Exhibition Place to merge and to be kept afloat by an expansion of the present CNE casino which operates in August. This can be done without legal or political hassles because the Ex is allowed a casino under the provincial regs governing agricultural fairs.
The Ex and OP would operate the casino and some other attractions from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving but really concentrate on July and August when high school and university students would be available for staff.
This is such a logical merger that it could be up and running this year instead of all the people studying the issue running around like a headless chicken just before death.
There's only one thing certain for now if we're not careful.  Listen to the wet dreams of all the politicians and it will cost you and me a lot of taxes. And we will also have to listen to a lot of hooey and baloney. But if  the new creation makes money and not just fuss, it truly will be a wonderful new attraction on our waterfront.
No, make that it will be a wonderful new miracle, and God knows, we need one considering the chuckleheads mismanaging City Hall and Queen's Park.

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