The spa that was a casino

Team Ford is running the show at Ontario Place

The spa that was a casino
Artist rendering of the "spa" under construction at Ontario Place

The mayoral race in Toronto is throwing spotlight on controversial plans for revitalization of Ontario Place. In 2019, the Ford government awarded Austrian “developers” Therme Group the opportunity to “revitalize” Ontario Place. The proposed indoor waterpark and spa promises a sprawling array of glassed-in buildings with a parking garage for 2000 vehicles.

Therme Group has four similar existing projects (three in Germany and one in Romania), with five in development - two in the UK (Manchester and Glasgow), one in South Korea, another in Germany, and the proposed Ontario Place site. Described by the company as “an inclusive multi-generational space” the site plans include water slides, wave pools, a beach, therapeutic mineral pools, and swim up bars.

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In 2021, mayoral candidate and former Toronto police chief, Mark Saunders, was appointed by the province as a “special advisor” to the redevelopment project, for a term lasting to February 24, 2024. During this time, he collects $700 a day for his “advice”, to a limit of $171,500 a year. However, Saunders’ paid involvement has been erased, ignored or downplayed by most of Toronto media so far during the mayoral race. A recent article in the Toronto Star by David Rider made only a fleeting reference to Saunders’ paid advisor role when asking about each of the candidate’s stance on the project.

During a mayoral race where Premier Ford had thrown his support behind ex-police chief Saunders before he was even in the running, there are other close connections between Therme Canada and Ford’s office. The current VP of Communications and External Relations for Therme, Mark Lawson, was formerly Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of Policy in Premier Ford’s office, before spending some time as Chief of Staff for the Minister of Finance, Peter Bethlenfalvy.

Additionally, Lawson’s wife is Jessica Lippert, currently the Chief of Staff for Cabinet Office.

In the eleven months between leaving government and joining Therme, Lawson worked as a VP of Strategic Initiatives for Enthusiast Gaming, a Canadian company (NASDAQ: EGLX; TSX:EGLX) which bills itself as “the largest publicly traded video game and esports company in North America.” They operate Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo, the largest annual gaming convention in North America. In 2019, the company announced a partnership with global casino brand,

Other executives for Therme in Canada were recently working for consulting, government relations and lobbying shops close to the PC party. Chris Salloum, currently Director of Strategy and Operations at Therme, was formerly a manager at StrategyCorp.

StrategyCorp currently has four registered lobbyists working on behalf of their client, Therme.

Simon Bredin, now Therme’s Senior Manager for Communications and Public Engagement, came from a year at Waterfront Toronto, but previously spent six and a half years at Navigator, Jaime Watt’s consulting, government relations and lobbying shop. (Watt is currently advising candidate Brad Bradford during this run for Toronto mayor, as is Ford strategist and advisor, Kory Teneycke.)

With suspicion growing amongst Toronto residents about the plans for Ontario Place, the organization has employed “astroturfing” techniques to obscure public dissatisfaction. For example, in response to opposition from community organization Ontario Place for All, which has as its rallying cry “Ontario Place for Everyone”, Therme updated its own Twitter page with the phrase, in an attempt to confuse the public ahead of a public meeting about the redevelopment later this month.

Drawings of the “spa” released by the developer, including plans for an enormous underground parking garage (complete with a bus loop), have deepened suspicions about the intent of the project. Doug Ford, along with his brother, former Toronto Mayor, Rob Ford, have openly planned a downtown casino for Toronto since the early 2010s, and used increasingly shady means to try and make it happen.

Writing in Spacing in March, John Lorinc cast doubt on the plan, and outlined the troubled and conflicted history of Waterfront Toronto, as well as earlier efforts of the Fords to subvert its plans for the Port Lands.

The Austrian company’s proposal fails on every measure — it’s the wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. We don’t know where the money is coming from. We don’t know what happens if the spa business fails. The proposal makes a mockery of the public space principles that have guided waterfront revitalization for a quarter of a century. And I would be willing to wager a large bet that everyone involved, including the proponent’s consultants, know it.

In April 2022, the Ford government launched what it called “a competitive market” for online sports betting, esports betting and internet casino gambling, with more than 15 digital bookmakers legally taking bets, more than anywhere else in Canada. Prior to the June 2022 election, it spoke to the gaming industry about plans to debut other forms of legal sports betting, including bricks-and-mortar sportsbooks at casinos and other physical locations, if elected.

Those in the know, and those looking closely, expect Therme’s plans to dissolve like bath salts sometime during construction, making the sprawling space available for its original purpose and internet - a casino.

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