Ontario Place spa deal rivals Highway 407 debacle

For more than two decades, one could confidently claim that the privatization of Highway 407 was the worst deal ever for the people of Ontario. It may now have a serious competitor.

Before considering the new player, let’s recap the dreadfulness of the 407 deal.

In privatizing that key relief route in 1999, the government of Mike Harris failed to impose a limit on how high the private company could raise tolls during its 99-year-lease. Because of this stunning omission, Ontario drivers have paid some of the world’s highest road tolls — and will pay many billions more in such tolls before the lease expires in 2098.

Walking tall in Mike Harris’ footsteps, Premier Doug Ford has delivered a strikingly bad deal that will privatize our waterfront for 95 years. But no worries. We’ll get it back in 2118.

Scarce waterfront land is treasured as the city’s population explodes and yet the premier is serving up 35 precious acres of public waterfront to Austrian-based Therme Group to create a gigantic “wellness” retreat, whose luxury experience will be largely confined to the well-to-do.

Spas or “wellness centres” are the new playgrounds of the rich.

The website of Therme international claims it’s committed to going “further than the individual pursuit of luxury,” and touts its commitment to “inclusiveness” by showing a glamorous person in a wheelchair.

Everyone in the Therme video is glamorous. Certainly there’s no one who looks poor or like they’re unwinding after a long day of minimum-wage work at a fast-food joint.

In real life, almost a million Ontarians work for minimum wages and additional millions work for not much more. They and their families won’t be able to afford to immerse themselves in Therme’s frothy thermal baths or lounge in fluffy bathrobes amid indoor palm trees.

Ironically, this may turn out to be how Doug Ford is best remembered — not as the guy who pitched beers for a buck to the tailgating gang, but the guy who created new indulgence opportunities for those who’ve probably never experienced a day job.

However, even low-income Ontarians, as taxpayers, will pay for the privilege of having the seven-storey spa on our waterfront.

That’s because the province will pay about $200 million to prepare the land and $450 million to build a five-storey underground parking garage to serve the spa (and the public space that will wrap around it almost like an after-thought).

One would have to think long and hard to come up with a more foolish way to invest in our future than to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars building a parking garage that benefits a private business and furthers our car dependence over the next nine decades, even as the climate crashes all around us.

Therme says it will build a nice, new beach for the public, and won’t charge people to use it. But, hey, we own that beach and we could fix it up really nicely ourselves, without handing over a spacious chunk of waterfront to a private developer.

We did, after all, build Trillium Park, a spectacular seven-acre park on the waterfront.

Completed in 2017, it’s the very antithesis of the mega-spa. Instead of creating a new parking lot, Trillium Park transformed an old parking lot into an imaginative green landscape full of pedestrian and bicycle paths, all for a mere $30 million — less than it will cost to build a single level of the mega-spa’s parking garage.

Both the Highway 407 and the mega-spa deals involve governments privatizing something of tremendous value — a key piece of our highway infrastructure and a stretch of our scant waterfront — for no obvious benefit and at great cost to Ontarians, and then locking in those deals for years after the demise of the governments that concocted them.

As to which deal is worse — sadly, Ontarians will have decades to figure that out.


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