Auditor General continues to point out flaws in Ford government schemes

In a report released on Dec. 6, Ontario’s acting auditor general, Nick Stavropoulos, criticized the Ford government’s decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre to Toronto’s waterfront. Stavropoulos highlighted that the decision was based on “preliminary and incomplete cost information,” and the government failed to engage key stakeholders in the process.

“The province’s science centres are both facing their own challenges,” said Stavropoulos, in a news release. “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.”

The annual report, which includes 12 value-for-money audits, outlined that the proposal to move the Ontario Science Centre from its current location near Don Mills and Eglinton to the Ontario Place site to be incorporated into the Thermé Spa development project.

Stavropoulos emphasized that both the Ontario Science Centre as well as Science North in Sudbury are grappling with financial sustainability and declining attendance. The decision to relocate the Ontario Science Centre to Ontario Place has been under consideration since 2016, predating Premier Doug Ford’s government. However, Stavropoulos noted that the decision this year lacked a comprehensive list of costs for a thorough comparison with the alternative of keeping the facility at its current location.

Last week, Infrastructure Ontario released a business case claiming that building a new Science Centre would save taxpayers $257 million over 50 years compared to renovating the existing facility. Stavropoulos, however, pointed out that the analysis was incomplete, with key information, such as incremental parking costs, financing, transaction and legal costs, not included.

In addition, Stavropoulos noted that key exhibits such as the Planetarium would not be included in the newer, smaller facility and that information was not provided to the decision makers prior to making the decision to move to Ontario Place.

The audit also revealed deficiencies in consultations with crucial stakeholders, including the centre’s landowners. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was overlooked, and discussions with the City of Toronto were restricted. Furthermore, there was a lack of engagement with large school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, directly affected by the decision. It is noteworthy that elementary and high school students constitute a significant 25 per cent of the centre’s attendees.

The existing infrastructure of the Ontario Science Centre demands an investment of $370 million for deferred maintenance and necessary repairs. Compounding the challenges, the pedestrian bridge linking the main entrance to the exhibits is presently inaccessible due to significant structural issues. Consequently, during the fiscal year 2022/23, the centre incurred a cost of $2.4 million to transport visitors by bus from the parking lot to an alternative entrance, significantly compromising the overall visitor experience.

In essence, something had to give.

“Science centres are vitally important to spark interest in scientific discovery and also for the positive impacts scientific knowledge can provide for Ontario and its economy. To ensure Ontario is well placed to benefit, key decisions about these facilities should be made with the best information possible,” said Stavropoulos.

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