Business case for moving Ontario Science Centre missing key information: auditor

By Allison Jones in Toronto

The decision to move the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place was based on incomplete information and took into consideration the parking needs of a privately owned waterpark and spa, the province’s auditor general said Wednesday.

An annual report from the auditor general’s office today includes a look at the planned science centre relocation and found that a proposal earlier this year to government decision makers included mention of the province’s legal obligations to Therme, which is set to build a highly criticized facility at Ontario Place.

The government has not disclosed details of the long-term lease with Therme, but the auditor general said it binds them to providing a number of dedicated parking spaces for the spa between 2028 and 2030 or face a financial penalty.

“The submission proposed that the new parking be integrated with the new Ontario Science Centre building in order to dispel public/stakeholder concerns relating to cost and impact on the environment,” the auditor’s report said.

Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma said the province has agreed with the city of Toronto now to move the Ontario Place parking to nearby Exhibition Place.

NDP Leader Marit Stiles, a vocal critic of the spa and a plan for a waterfront underground parking garage below the new science centre, said the auditor’s report shows the government gifted the parking to Therme then used an incomplete business case to justify it.

“This whole plan to move the science centre was very clearly concocted to legitimize the premier’s plan to build this luxury spa,” she said. “Why is he so beholden to Therme? And what is even going on here?”

Liberal critic Adil Shamji, who represents the east Toronto riding currently home to the science centre, said the business case for moving the science centre “only makes sense” by planning a new building half the size of the current one and excluding important information.

“This is intended to be a distraction that serves a higher purpose for (Premier) Doug Ford, which is to allow him to continue in his private and shady deals with developers, and specifically a private spa company – and the Ontario Science Centre is a pawn in all of this,” he said.

An Infrastructure Ontario business case on the science centre found that moving it instead of renovating the existing facility could save the government about $250 million over 50 years, but acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos found that it was missing key information.

He says incremental parking costs were not included, nor were financing, transaction and legal costs for a new science centre, nor similar costs for the repairs and upgrade of the current facility.

“The province’s science centres (including Science North in Sudbury) are both facing their own challenges,” Stavropoulos wrote in a statement.

“But decision makers were not fully informed when planning for the future of the Ontario Science Centre — this is critically important for all decisions going forward.”

Surma said the costs that were excluded in the “move” option were also excluded for the “stay” option.

“That being said, we have our business case from 2023 that clearly defines that it’s less expensive to build a new facility and less expensive to operate it over a 50-year term,” she said.

A similar business case in 2016 with relocation as one of the options reached the same conclusion on cost savings, the auditor said, but no action was taken.

A likely increase in tourists attending the science centre at Ontario Place was included in the April proposal to government, the auditor said, but a likely negative impact on attendance from residents and school groups was not included.

The government also did not consult many groups affected by the decision, including school boards, the auditor said. School groups make up 25 per cent of the science centre’s visits.

The auditor’s office surveyed 300 science teachers from 53 school boards and found that almost half said they would be less likely to take classes to a science centre at Ontario Place due to distance and transportation concerns.

The science centre proposed a 353,000-square-foot facility in September 2022 for Ontario Place at a cost estimated at up to $610 million, the auditor said, but the government instead requested that a smaller facility be explored. The new facility is now set to be about 275,000 square feet and not include a planetarium or immersive rainforest exhibit.

Government officials have often said that even though the new proposed science centre building will be about half the size of the current one, it will use space more efficiently and have more exhibition space.

The auditor’s report said the new building would actually have about 18 per cent less space for exhibits.

The current science centre building is facing $369 million in deferred and critical maintenance needs over the next 20 years, the business case said. 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.

A lack of government funding is a key cause of that, the auditor said.

There have been 42 projects deemed “critical” since 2017 that haven’t been repaired, and of those projects, the science centre had asked for funding for seven of them at least three times in the past five years but was denied each time, the auditor wrote.

As well, the science centre’s planetarium has been closed to the public since September 2022 because of “outstanding capital repairs and ongoing tech­nical issues with equipment that had reached the end of its useful life,” the auditor wrote.

Infrastructure Ontario also 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 business case said bridge repair would cost $16 million but there is no timeline for that.

The science centre put a shuttle service in place taking visitors from the parking lot to its rear entrance, which the auditor’s report said is costing $2.4 million a year and “has negatively impacted visitor experience.”

Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.

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