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Comments trigger alarm bells over fate of Ontario Place

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Concern over the fate of Ontario Place is growing after its new board chair argued the site is in “complete disrepair” and can be rebuilt “any way” Premier Doug Ford wishes.

Jim Ginou’s comments have triggered alarm bells with city and federal politicians as well as members of the public, who have embraced calls for a rally next Saturday on the future of the shuttered educational amusement park that in recent years has started coming back to life.

Politicians and the public have expressed concerns about the future of Ontario Place after comments by the newly appointed chair. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star File Photo
Politicians and the public have expressed concerns about the future of Ontario Place after comments by the newly appointed chair. Richard Lautens/Toronto Star File Photo  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star File Photo)

“The opportunity to create an Ontario Place for all Ontarians as a waterfront destination is immense — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we cannot mess it up,” said Councillor Joe Cressy, whose ward includes the downtown waterfront, in an interview Monday.

“It should be the people of Ontario, and not Doug Ford’s friends, who decide what happens to this gem.”

Cressy is reviewing Toronto’s ownership of land near the site and urging the province to work with city and federal officials, and get public input, rather than make major changes.

Ginou, a Conservative fundraiser and Ford friend appointed chair last week, told Queen’s Park Briefing he personally found Ontario Place’s condition “disgraceful,” adding: “Everything is in complete disrepair, there is nothing that can be saved.

“Because it has to be rebuilt, it can be rebuilt in any way that Ford wants it to be rebuilt.”

Ginou, who previously headed the then-amusement park’s board from 1997 to 2003, said he awaits direction from Ford’s Progressive Conservative government about its future, but he believes the site will become more of an “amusement” destination than a waterfront one.

Ford, elected in June, quickly set his sights on overhauling Ontario Place. He scrapped redevelopment proposals under the previous Liberal government. Plans included building on the $30-million Trillium Park, with the William G. Davis Trail, opened in 2017, and a renovation of the Cinesphere IMAX theatre.

Ginou, who runs a printing company, did not return the Star’s call Monday. Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, asked by CBC Radio about Ginou’s comments, said: “We’ve got a real great opportunity to do something fresh and innovative down there.

“I wouldn’t take anything off the table and I wouldn’t put anything on the table. It’s a clean slate and I think we should look at the whole … project and celebrate something exciting there.”

As city councillor in 2011, Ford proposed a casino, megamall and boat-in casino for the Port Lands to the east. His brother, then-mayor Rob Ford, abandoned that plan after Torontonians and several allies on council opposed those changes.

Adam Vaughan, the Liberal MP who represents the waterfront, met with Cressy on Monday to develop a response to the plans. How governments will manage the waterfront, climate change and flood mitigation of Toronto’s waterfront is vital, he said.

“If we see the waterfront simply as a real estate play, we are going to put the city at risk and do a massive disservice to the public,” he said. “Ontario Place is a golden opportunity and we’d be foolish to throw out 10 years of work and studies to go with a back-of-the-napkin plan.”

Waterfront for All and Park People, two advocacy groups, are expecting more than 150 members of the public to gather at Metro Hall to debate next steps for Ontario Place.

“Horrifying” is how Cindy Wilkey, vice-chair of Waterfront for All, described Ginou’s comments. Some of Ontario Place is in “rough shape,” she said, but added many people are enjoying the use of important sites including Trillium Park and the Cinesphere.

Ontario Place is “not something you can just burn down and start again,” she said.

Cressy said Toronto owns land including the “waterlot” over Lake Ontario between Exhibition Place and Ontario Place, including the bridges, while the provincial government owns all the Ontario Place land.

Among those speaking Saturday will be Ken Greenberg, a prominent urban designer.

Trillium Park on the east edge is an excellent start at revitalizing Ontario Place, he said, and that land would be considered with Exhibition Place for a possible merger as a “different kind of park, not just grass and trees but a lot of public facilities, some paid events and more.”

But any move to scrap the Cinesphere and iconic pods over the water, designed by renowned Canadian architect Eberhard Zeidler, would be a grave mistake, Greenberg said.

“Clearly there is an extraordinary legacy of built artifacts by one of our great architects and enormous potential for adaptive reuse of them,” he said. “What shouldn’t happen is a fire sale of this public resource to a kind of festival entertainment site that would turn it over to the private sector, or treat it as a destination venue disconnected from the public waterfront.”

With files from Robert Benzie

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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