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Ontario Science Centre move based on 'incomplete costing,' auditor general report says

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The Doug Ford government’s decision to move the Science Centre to Ontario Place was based on “incomplete costing information” and made without full consultation, the province’s auditor general says.

In a report released Wednesday, acting auditor general Nick Stavropoulos said the province’s business case for moving the Ontario Science Centre may be incomplete, as it did not include all possible costs associated with the creation of a new facility.

“In our review of the cost/benefit analysis, we found that costs for both options were not fully identified and determined,” the report said.

The province released its March 2023 business case for the science centre to the public last Wednesday. In the document, officials argue that moving the museum and educational centre to Toronto’s waterfront could save the province hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is in part due to deferred maintenance at the site near Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue. The government has said it could cost about $369 million at minimum over the next 20 years to address this repair work and modernize the “inflexible design.”

The business case suggested the government could construct a new, smaller facility at Ontario Place that would repurpose the existing pod and Cinesphere structure already at the site for about $387 million.

However, the auditor general notes this cost doesn’t include financing, or transaction and legal costs under the public-private partnership model to design, build and maintain the new science centre.

It also doesn’t include the cost of a fabrication facility, which constructs exhibits for both the Science Centre and for other clients. The business case released by the government said there were nine areas that could be leased for this purpose, to the cost of $420,000 to $690,000 a year.

While Infrastructure Ontario has insisted that funding has been provided for critical repairs at the science centre, the auditor general says that since 2017, there were 42 projects deemed critical and “at risk of failure” have not been addressed.

This included about $4 million to renew plumbing.

“Of these 42 projects, seven had been put forward in at least three of the past five years and were denied funding each time,” the report says.

“According to Infrastructure Ontario, there was a lack of funding available to manage the Province’s real estate portfolio, so the repairs could not be paid for.”

The auditor general found that Infrastructure Ontario had not obtained a cost estimate for fixing the pedestrian bridge, which connects visitors to exhibits from the entrance of the building. At the time of the report, a feasibility study evaluating the bridge’s condition was being completed, although there was no targeted timeline for the bridge’s repair.

The absence of the pedestrian bridge takes away from the visitor’s experience, the report says, as individuals need to be shuttled across a parking lot to access the building.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, Minister of Infrastructure Kinga Surma said that while the costs weren't entirely laid out for moving the Ontario Science Centre, there were also costs missing from the proposal to have the centre stay at the same location.

"That being said, we have our business case from March 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."

The auditor general report also suggests the decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre was presented to the government as a way to “contribute to meeting the Province’s existing legal obligations under the lease it had signed with Therme Group and for its potential lease obligations with Live Nation.”

As part of a new deal with the City of Toronto, the provincial government has agreed to move parking to Exhibition Place.

NO DISCUSSIONS WITH KEY STAKEHOLDERS BEFORE DECISION

The report suggests the province held no to little discussion with key parties ahead of making the decision to move the Science Centre to Ontario Place. This includes the centre’s landowner, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, the City of Toronto and large school boards who could be directly impacted.

Students make up about 25 per cent of visitors to the Ontario Science Centre.

While the new location was determined to be easy to access for tourists, a 2021 report notes the greater distance will create challenges for most residents and school groups, especially those in suburban areas.

The auditor general noted that between September 2021 and April 2023, the provincial government moved responsibility of Ontario Science Centre from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport to the Ministry of Infrastructure.

Despite this, public consultations on the future of Ontario Place in April and October 2022 mentioned science-related programming in collaboration with the science centre and nothing about its relocation.

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