Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone hopes big developers will be circling to sink their teeth into waterfront aquarium project. Fishing for tourism deputy mayor joe pantalone isn't one to waste time lamenting a political setback. His beloved Front Street extension may be down on the canvas and on the verge of being counted out by his council colleagues (see sidebar), but the Ward 19 (Trinity-Spadina) rep has already moved on to his next big thing.
There are much greater pleasures to be derived from preparing to welcome a long-talked-about aquarium to some prime waterfront property between Exhibition and Ontario Places.
As a municipal politician who also happens to chair the Canadian National Exhibition's board of governors, Pantalone found himself in a perfect position this week. He could oversee sending out invitations to 50 or so developers who might be interested in sinking private-sector cash into 5 hectares of city-owned lakeshore with an eye to creating an "iconic" waterfront facility.
"We've got the land. If they've got the money, let's talk," Mayor David Miller's left-hand man enthused.
He doesn't foresee any major opposition to the aquarium proposal so long as it's made clear from the beginning that marine mammals like porpoises, dolphins and whales will not be quartered there.
"It's not supposed to be a freak show," Pantalone maintains. "It's supposed to be an educational facility." And one that should end up costing the city's partner from the private sector considerably less to build (between $55 million and $97 million) than the controversial Front Street asphalt would cost local taxpayers.
"We don't know exactly what the market is prepared to provide," the deputy mayor notes. But he says a study commissioned by the Exhibition board indicates that a 125,000-square-foot facility would attract about 1.4 million visitors annually and "make a profit." This is why Pantalone expects a considerable number of expressions of interest in the board's invitation.
Once they're all in at the end of February, a shortlist of potential candidates will be prepared and a call for proposals will go out to "firm things up."
"Presuming that things go well, we should be able to pick a winner by the fall and report to council to get its concurrence at that time," Pantalone says. He's hopeful the aquarium will be open to the public by 2007 or 08. By that time, construction of a new 300-room hotel and 50,000 square-foot conference centre (already approved by the CNE board and endorsed by council) should also be completed.
It's all part and parcel of a comprehensive plan to turn both Exhibition Place and Ontario Place into year-round attractions. This critical mission received an important boost when the provincial Liberals appointed former mayor and long-time waterfront advocate David Crombie to chair Ontario Place Corp. last year.
"We're poised to do something really good down there," Miller says. "David Crombie and Joe Pantalone are two of the most experienced Torontonians who understand this waterfront completely. They've got a chance to break through the obstacles that have prevented the province and the city from being partners, and that's fantastic."
Of course, City Hall and Queen's Park (and the federal government) were once well-publicized partners in the Front Street extension, too. Indeed, Ottawa and the province were supposed to provide two-thirds of the funding for the project in those heady days when a Toronto bid for the 2008 Olympics had the powers-that-be talking about dismantling the Gardiner Expressway and replacing it with at-grade thoroughfares.
While Miller has long maintained that his personal support for the Front Street extension was contingent on the Gardiner coming down, his refusal to reject the project outright, while his lead hand continued to vigorously promote it, angered many of his downtown supporters and raised questions about his political motives.
But with council seemingly poised to kill the proposal, Miller will likely avoid having to take a position overtly for or against his deputy.
"Not putting money into it right now is a very good thing," the mayor says.
Not long ago, such a comment would have had Pantalone gasping for air like a fish out of water. These days he's busy trying to find some fish a decent home.