• redevelopment of Ontario Place

Ontario Place Redevelopment is a Motor Sport Opportunity

The current government is led by a guy who has big ideas.

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald June 8, 2019

The annual Grand Prix of Canada — or “du Canada,” because it’s held in Montreal — will take place Sunday at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve on Ile Notre-Dame in the St. Lawrence River. Lewis Hamilton will probably win, as he has six times going back to 2007. Michael Schumacher holds the Canadian record of seven wins, so Hamilton has incentive.

But I don’t want to talk to you today about the Grand Prix, per se. What I do want is to revisit a subject I have broached from time to time for years. To me, it’s a no-brainer; but other than my own, personal, small circle of friends, it hasn’t attracted much attention, or traction. However, the time seems right, so here I go again.

Ontario Place, which has pretty much been shuttered since 2012, is up for redevelopment. Several years ago, the previous government sought suggestions about what to do with it and the current mayor of Toronto, who chaired a committee (naturally), delivered something so totally lacking in originality and pizzazz that if I’d been him I wouldn’t have had the nerve to submit it.

Naming the report “A new public backyard,” the first suggestion was for condos. There were other suggestions, but you now know just about everything there is to know about that report.

The current government is led by a guy who has big ideas. Big ideas don’t go over well with people in the chattering classes, because those people all like to think small. Montreal, where they’re having the Grand Prix, doesn’t have this problem. Everybody thinks big there. That’s how they got Expo and the Olympics. And it’s also how they got the Grand Prix. The sky’s the limit for hotel room charges there this weekend (you’d have to take out a second mortgage to pay your bill, but you can’t get a room anyway) and all the fancy restaurants will only take reservations if you agree to a “prix fixe” menu at $200 per person.

I am not making this up. Toronto has to take lessons from Montreal when it comes to thinking big.

Rather than stamping their feet and yelling, which will eventually kill any momentum to do anything with Ontario Place, the city has got to sit down with the government and convince it to include the Exhibition Place grounds in any renovation project. The sky really can be the limit down there if they would only stop calling each other names and start working together for the benefit of everybody.

One of the things that could be included — should be included, actually — in any exciting new Ontario Place/Exhibition Place makeover is an up-to-date international Grand Prix racing circuit that could be made up of public roads at all times during the year except for specific weekends when they could be closed off and used for the Honda Indy, Formula Electric car races (they would use a shortened version of the IndyCar course) and — yes — Formula One races.

Before anyone starts screaming, I am not suggesting that the F1 Grand Prix of Canada be taken away from Montreal. But I am saying that there is no reason whatsoever why the Grand Prix du Canada, which is largely supported financially by the Government of Canada (which means public money supplied by you and me), shouldn’t be held at a place other than Montreal from time to time if a proper circuit and facilities existed. Until that time, the Grand Prix should stay where it is.

But like other Canadian sporting events that receive gobs of public money (the Canadian Open golf tournament is a prime example), while they should be anchored at one dock (Glen Abbey, in the case of golf) they should be allowed to slip away to other facilities every now and again (the Open is being held at Hamilton Golf & Country Club this year, for instance).

Last December, I was in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, for the global drive of the all-electric Audi e-tron. While there — although I only saw it from a distance — I did see the Yas Marina Circuit that was purpose-built for Formula One.

And I thought, as I did back in 2012 when I first floated this big idea, you could take the hotel at the Yas Marina circuit and plop it down right on top of where Ontario Place currently stands and it would fit perfectly.

Here’s some of what else I wrote seven years ago:

Except for the Summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, no sporting event on the planet attracts as much attention as a Formula One car race. F1, like soccer, is a world sport that has a consistently loyal audience. As former F1 driver Jackie Stewart said to me once, while talking about a Canadian Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport, in those days): “The eyes of the world will be on Canada this Sunday.”

The eyes have been on Canada, but specifically Montreal, since 1978. And one of the problems of a taxpayer-supported international event that stays in one place is that, over time, the event comes to be identified with the location rather than the nation. It might be the Canadian Grand Prix but if you Google it, you will be surprised at the number of “Montreal Grand Prix” links you get. And although the drivers will almost always refer to it as the “Canadian Grand Prix,” or “Canada,” they will also always talk about “the city” as if it were the country.

So, it’s time to create a situation where it could be moved around, and that’s where Toronto comes in.

I keep going back to Abu Dhabi. The Yas Marina project contains a marina (one already exists at Ontario Place-Exhibition Place), a magnificent hotel featuring seven multicultural restaurants and all the other amenities, movie theatres (“Hello, Cinesphere”), an amusement park (“Hello, CNE Midway”), art galleries, splash pads, golf driving ranges and so on. In fact, the Formula One circuit winds around and through the hotel. There is no reason why a development like that couldn’t become reality on the Toronto waterfront, with the city’s hotels and restaurants — even the Chamber of Commerce — benefitting from the international exposure brought on by world-class motor sport.

I don’t want to get into the nuts and bolts about how any of this could happen. That is why there are promoters in this world. But talking about this world, it’s changing pretty rapidly. Although it hasn’t caught fire, as yet, the Formula E Series is a reflection of where the automobile industry is putting its money. So, Formula One, Formula E — anything is possible, but only if there is a proper facility ready and waiting (which could also help the Honda Indy; a fresh track would equal a fresh start).

The redevelopment of Ontario Place/Exhibition Place is the perfect opportunity to ensure that if the opportunity should ever arise to host a Formula One race, Toronto would be ready.

Toronto lost out twice before when it came to an F1 race — the first time in 1968, when driver George Eaton and businessman John F. Bassett Jr. proposed one, and then again in 1977 when Labatt wanted to move the Grand Prix from Mosport to Toronto and it wound up going to Montreal instead.

It was short-sightedness the first two times, a result of people who think small. Let’s start thinking big and make the potential third time a success.

Norris McDonald is a former Star editor who is a current freelance columnist.

Follow him on Twitter: @NorrisMcDonald2