One could hardly call them debates, but there are moments during the breathy discussions of Toronto's bid to host the 2015 World Expo when the whole thing feels like a gambling movie.
The potential winnings from securing a world's fair in the port lands, with its expected 21.6 million visitors, are impressive: connected light rail on the waterfront, hundreds of affordable housing units, 143,000 new jobs for the duration of the project, "legacy" capital benefits (infrastructure, pavilions, auditoriums and the like) at an estimated value of $1.5 billion, a rejuvenated waterfront.
These projects and more are part of the plan that council last week voted near unanimously, with the exception of Rob Ford and Norm Kelly, to ask the province and feds to underwrite.
It's kind of inspiring to behold: roomfuls of city bureaucrats operating partially on faith, putting that faith in a chance taken boldly. It may be for council the first homeopathic dose of irrationality it so badly needs.
Mayor David Miller, an enthusiastic supporter, certainly sees the poetic possibilities. "This is the chance for Toronto to tell its story," he said during economic development committee deliberations on the pitch a few weeks back. "The world doesn't know Toronto the way it should."
But, this being a gambling flick, there has to be camera time for those who ante up. When asked about the cost of past Expos, Paula Dill of the Toronto Economic Development Corporation, the city subsidiary that's handling the bid, said, "Generally, there is an investment to gain legacy benefits."
Specifically, the project's deficit is expected to amount to $700 million. The bid will only proceed if the upper assemblies, persuaded of the possibility of a $5 billion increase in tax revenue, assure absorption of this cost.
"Financially, there would be very little risk to the city," says Dill.
That's the thing about gamblers: they forget where their gambling money comes from. It's true that after the nearly $5 million the city will have spent on the bid - not an insignificant sum - Toronto won't be writing the cheques.
But it may not be cashing as many afterward either, once the feds have handed over that $700 million. With $10 billion in taxes already streaming to other levels from Toronto each year and huge problems trying to negotiate a change in these arrangements, one could well imagine the feds saying, "Sorry, no more to come. You've got your legacy now. Use it."
And we may very well have to, especially if feeding the Expo lands with transportation takes a hefty chunk of the TTC's operating budget.
In other words, of the many bets being placed, one is on the trickle-down effect and this, historically, has been given discouraging odds, to say the least. Most investment and revitalization would go to downtown Toronto. The poor outer rim of suburban neighbourhoods would then have to wait for their own trickle.
"Something has to happen before other levels of government will put money in," said Councillor Mike Del Grande on the council floor. "Any investment in Toronto is by excuse."
Del Grande supported the bid, saying winning it would put a "deadline" on the receipt of many promised federal monies. But his complaint remains valid. Why is it we can gamble on the "legacy benefits" of a second (albeit younger and hipper) Exhibition Place but never on, say, social programs?
Then there's the game of chance being played with our green spaces. Dalton Shipway of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don calls the proposal an "inappropriate land use" for the port lands, saying it would be unethical to locate what is likely to be a large number of roads and buildings so close to the very spot where the Don meets the lake.
Such areas of ecological diversity are also very sensitive, and function to filter toxins out of lakes assuming there's a suitable ecological buffer. Shipway says there are tentative plans for a number of parks in the port lands, running along the shores of the Don. "That's ecologically necessary," he tells me. "It's an aquatic and terrestrial link to the lake. It's up to the powers that be to make the area a centrepiece, a green emerald."
So far, everyone expressing support for the bid has also expressed belief in the need to showcase Toronto's environmental "ingenuity" at the fairgrounds. That's obviously a good thing. But couldn't a waterfront rejuvenated in this way lead to development pressures, especially if bad relations with some future Ottawa make "legacy benefits" and the capital infrastructure veins that feed them too expensive for the city to sustain?
No matter how sturdily built, the pavilions and buildings bequeathed by a World Expo won't be around as long as the lake or the river. A hundred years from now, we're more likely to be thanked for choosing for once not to crowd the pavement right up to the edge of the lake.
If Toronto isn't as widely known as it should be, maybe Toronto isn't as known to itself as it should be. What we really need is time and space to sit with ourselves and reflect. And all the better if we could do so amidst a verdant - and, dare I say it - quiet waterfront.