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Casino not ruled out as an option to revive Ontario Place

Ontario Place has been proposed as a potential location for a casino in Toronto.

Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

The iconic Cinesphere on Toronto's waterfront, home to the first Imax theatre, is fading to black as the province closes most of Ontario Place for up to five years.

The Ontario government announced on Wednesday that it is looking at several options to revitalize the aging theme park, including opening a casino.

Former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory has been asked to head a panel that will advise the government on options for generating more revenue from a tourist attraction that has fallen into disrepair. He acknowledged that a casino is one of the options.

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"We're not ruling anything in or out, and the government hasn't ruled anything in or out either," Mr. Tory told reporters at Queen's Park on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the government held a hurriedly-called news conference to announce that it is closing the orb-shaped Cinesphere, the water park and amusement rides at Ontario Place, effective immediately.

Mr. Tory said he personally is "lukewarm" about providing more venues for people to play Blackjack and the slot machines. Whatever the province builds, he said, should enrich the "cultural and social fabric" of Toronto.

"It's got to be something that is extraordinary," he said.

Tourism Minister Michael Chan said options for the valuable chunk of waterfront real estate are "wide open" at the moment. "It can be anything," he said at the news conference.

Ontario Place was a must-visit destination for residents and tourists when it first opened its doors 41 years ago. But the number of visitors in recent years has fallen sharply to just over 500,000 last summer – when admission was free – from 2.5 million during its heyday.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said during the news conference that the province can no longer afford to keep sinking money into Ontario Place, when it is grappling with a deficit forecast to hit $16-billion this year.

"The park does not draw enough people to its gates to keep it sustainable in its current form," Mr. Duncan said.

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The province spends about $20-million a year for operating and capital costs at Ontario Place. The Molson amphitheatre, the Atlantis restaurant and event pavilion, the marina and parking lot will all remain open as they generate profits for the province.

Mr. Duncan said 48 permanent jobs will be lost as well as 600 summer jobs. The province plans to offset the loss of summer jobs by boosting funding for its summer youth employment program.

Ontario Place will be available for use for the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games and the revitalization will be completed in time to celebrate Canada's 150th birthday in 2017, Mr. Chan said.

Mr. Tory said his panel, which is still in the process of being assembled, plans to report back to the government by this summer.

The Globe and Mail has reported that Ontario's lottery corporation is pushing for a casino in downtown Toronto. Councillor Doug Ford, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's brother and closest adviser, has said the administration would support a casino as long as the public is behind it.

Mr. Duncan has suggested that he is also receptive to the idea because it would help the province raise a new source of revenue. But he said he is awaiting a strategic review Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is doing of its gambling and lottery operations.

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New Democratic Party MPP Gilles Bisson pointed out that the budget for Ontario Place represents well below 1 per cent of the more than $100-billion the province spends on programs.

"This raises a lot of questions," he said. "Is it going to be developed into condominiums? Who knows."

Mr. Bisson said a lot of people use Ontario Place, adding that he has often taken his own children and grandchildren to the water park.

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