The legacy of the Pan Am Games and its contribution to city building and civic pride are just now being realized in full, but influential politicians and development professionals are already setting their sights on hosting another major international event: Expo 2025. It would be the third time a Canadian city hosted the World's Fair, following the successes of Montreal in 1967 and Vancouver in 1986.

 Pavilions of Ontario, Canada, Western Provinces, seen from the pavilioExpo '67: Pavilions of Ontario, Canada, Western Provinces, seen from the pavilion of France, image by Laurent Bélanger, Creative Commons license BY-SA 3.0

Vancouver was the last North American city to host the event. Should Toronto organize a bid for 2025? A discussion held by the Urban Land Institute on the evening of May 17 posed that question to a group of distinguished panelists.

The event at the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) was moderated by the CEO of CivicAction Sevaun Palvetzian. It stirred an enlightening conversation over a potential bid's benefits and the Expo's relevance in the 21st century among the four notable panelists: David Peterson, Former Chair of Toronto Pan/Para Pan American Games and Former Premier of Ontario; Barbara Hall, Former Mayor of Toronto; Dr. Kwame McKenzie, President & CEO of the Wellesley Institute; and Andrew Grantham, Senior Economist at CIBC. 

Former Ontario Premier David Peterson, Urban Land Institute, Expo 2025Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, image by Marcus Mitanis

Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is the Co-Chair of a working group that has been campaigning for an Expo bid. The group is comprised of leaders from the arts and culture, business and organized labour sectors, representing a broad cross-section of supporters who believe the Expo will spawn economic development and infrastructure improvements. 

The unlocked potential that is the Port Lands has been cited as the perfect platform to showcase the city to the world. Its 880 acres, a blank canvas of sorts, has been largely left undeveloped and unprofitable. As one of the chief proponents of a Toronto bid, Wong-Tam initiated the event with an informative pitch. "The City is not receiving our share of real estate value capture despite being a majority landowner in the Port Lands. We know that parcel of land, which we count as a city asset, is underperforming." Wong-Tam believes Toronto has already missed several windows of opportunity for developing the site—the city had wanted to place a bid for the 2015 Expo which ultimately went to Milan.

In that Expo 2015 bid was a number of familiar and yet-to-be-achieved infrastructure projects including the Relief Line, Waterfront LRT and flood protection that would be a prerequisite to Port Lands development. As an Expo requires support from the federal and provincial governments to move forward, these projects would not be solely funded by the City of Toronto. Rather, Expo would be a way to unite government partners to finally deliver on these long-promised priorities while binding them to a strict time frame. Much like the Pan Am Games catapulted the Union Pearson Express, Canary District and Queens Quay revitalization into Toronto's urban fabric, an Expo's legacy would manifest itself through essential city building projects. The Expo, Wong-Tam stated, would be the catalyst to launch growth on Toronto's largest swath of undeveloped waterfront land. "We can test all these new technologies in the physical space of the Port Lands and demonstrate that it can be done," said Wong-Tam. "The only thing that's stopping us from winning is ourselves."

Port Lands, Hearn Generating Station, Urban Land Institute, Expo 2025The Hearn Generating Station at the Port Lands, image by Marcus Mitanis

Unlike the Pan Am and Olympic Games, the Expo would be held over a six-month period, yielding upwards of 40 million visitors. Not only would hotels and businesses benefit during that half-year stretch and beyond, but the national pavilions that promote each respective country's culture to the world would use Canadian lumber, steel and glass during the manufacturing process. Those pavilions, many of which are designed by world-renowned architecture firms, would then be shipped across Canada for reuse as libraries, community centres and other neighbourhood facilities. 

After Wong-Tam's speech was met with a passionate round of applause, questions were then put to the panel. When asked what resonates most with a possible bid, Andrew Grantham responded by pointing to the long-term impact of international cultural experiences. He admitted that as an economist, he's "trained to be skeptical of one-off events", but that the legacy of the Pan Am Games has been encouraging. David Peterson said that a compelling vision is needed in order to move forward. "We can't win this with a small vision," said Peterson. "The rewards are unbelievable but it's tough getting there," warning of the strife over finances that politicians often face when planning multi-nation events.

Panel discussion, Urban Land Institute, Expo 2025Former Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall speaks during the panel discussion, image by Marcus Mitanis

Barbara Hall was intrigued by the ability of large events to "trigger major investment and commitment that would be hard to get without a deadline." Kwame McKenzie addressed the question from a social health perspective. "The Wellesley Institute works on the principle that 50 percent of all our health is linked to the social factors in our society. When you ask what's compelling, it's very simple to me: increased transit, jobs, housing, and government revenues means increased health. If done correctly, this is good for the health of Toronto." Noting that stress can reduce a person's lifespan at comparable levels to smoking, McKenzie pointed to evidence suggesting that "feeling like you're part of a society that's going somewhere" significantly diminishes stress levels. "Big events that get people together to make something happen are good for our health." 

Palvetzian referred to international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower that were birthed at the Expo. But with globalization and technology changing the way people interact with one another, the relevance of the World Fair in today's society has been questioned. Peterson expressed that people will ask what's in it for them, explaining that the vision needs to be framed as a way of solving everyday municipal issues. "It seems to me in this fast-moving world, you want to position yourself to create the most advanced city. This world is going to be dramatically different in ten years. We can have the eyes of the world on this place and create opportunities for our children, but we have to sell our vision, we have to believe in it and have politicians willing to take the risk." The good news, according to Peterson, is the "alignment of really high-quality politicians" at each level of government. "They all like each other; this doesn't happen in politics. They're all forward-looking progressives. But the leadership has to come from the city."

Former Ontario Premier David Peterson, Urban Land Institute, Expo 2025Former Ontario Premier David Peterson, image by Marcus Mitanis

On how to reconcile Toronto's fiscal gap with an Expo bid, Grantham described how investment—rather than austerity—is the key to reducing deficits and debt. Turning back to legacy investments, McKenzie described how the focus of these events usually falls on the "bricks and mortar" results, and that the creation of "legacy companies" that continue to exist after the Expo is forgotten. "I'm from the United Kingdom. I've lived in Brussels, Boston and Los Angeles. Toronto under-punches its weight with regards to how spectacular we are and we do it systematically. If this is a catalyst for us to think in a different way about what's possible, then I think it's worth doing." Hall agreed, stating that "To ignore or turn our back to this is to see a city that falters," but that there also needs to be a "strong commitment from the private sector" in order for the bid to be advanced. 

In a follow-up interview with Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Councillor indicated that Mayor John Tory has expressed his interest in the event, but whether or not a bid is launched hinges on the support of all levels of government and the private sector. "The revitalization at the Port Lands cannot happen without the naturalization of the Don River. The Port Lands have languished for the last 25 years because there has been no compelling vision for the three orders of government to get together to do that work," said Wong-Tam. "Without a catalytic force, such as an Expo, we know that delivering large infrastructure projects in a timely fashion has not necessarily been a strong suit of government." 

The Pan Am Athletes' Village (Canary District) and Don River, Expo 2025The Pan Am Athletes' Village (Canary District) and Don River, image by Marcus Mitanis

An Expo bid is also receiving broad support from outside political circles. Jan De Silva, President and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade—who hosted a panel discussion touting possible benefits of an Expo in January—also spoke to UrbanToronto about what the event would mean to businesses and the economy. "The Toronto Region Board of Trade has a position in support of an Expo bid," said De Silva, who echoed the event's ability to act as an accelerator for needed infrastructure. "In the absence of Expo, it's going to be difficult for us to accelerate the quantum of projects that are needed to support the movement of people and goods in the city." De Silva believes the time is right for Toronto to take on another major international spectacle. "Toronto is in a really tremendous place in its economic development at the moment. We have a very diverse and strong business community," stated De Silva, who explained that the Expo would create an ideal forum for businesses and sectors to connect. That would foster inbound investment, outbound engagement, and as many as 190,000 jobs related to construction and the activities associated with hosting the event. 

As the TRBOT continues initiatives like the Trade Accelerator Program to help Toronto companies access growth markets around the world, De Silva looks back at the economic and cultural impact left by the Pan Am Games as a possible template for the future. Despite the "cynicism" initially expressed by Torontonians, the tourism, economic development, and infrastructure spurred by the Games "are indicators that it was a very successful event". De Silva credits the Games with boosting civic pride and confidence, and also pointed to evidence that the number of inbound trade missions from around the world had increased as a result of Toronto's heightened international profile. 

Revitalized Queens Quay, Expo 2025, image by Marcus MitanisThe revitalized Queens Quay opened in time for the Pan Am Games, image by Marcus Mitanis

With each Expo carrying a specific theme, with Dubai 2020's "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" setting the stage, De Silva pondered "what Toronto is going to give to the world." She pointed to Montreal's focus on creative media at Expo 1967, which kick-started the competitive cluster in the city. With innovative companies like Tesla Motors using events like the Expo as a launchpad for their latest creative inventions, Toronto has the potential to attract the greatest minds in the world and unite these ideas with a central theme. If the bid process moves forward, setting a clear theme will be one of the most integral aspects in securing a successful outcome. 

One of the key city builders at the forefront of the bid, who also serves as Co-Chair of the Expo 2025 working group, is Vice Chairman of the Kilmer Group Kenneth Tanenbaum. As co-developer of the Athletes' Village for the Pan Am Games, which recently celebrated its public opening as the Canary District, Tanenbaum has proven experience taking barren properties and turning them into productive city assets. Referring to Toronto's backlog of infrastructure priorities, Tanenbaum stated: "Our opportunity for Expo is to leverage those investments and create something magical. I call it the 'power of a moment'. When I talk about the power of a moment, I mean aligning stakeholders to get big and bold things done, and that's what we need to get the Port Lands activated." 

The Pan Am Athletes' Village (Canary District), TorontoThe Pan Am Athletes' Village (Canary District), image by UT Forum contributor skycandy

"The incremental cost of hosting an Expo is very modest because we have to do the work to naturalize the Don River and that by its nature creates Villiers Island, which is centre ice for an Expo," said Tanenbaum. "It's an opportunity to begin with the end in mind." In terms of funding the $10-15 million cost of submitting a formal bid, the working group's objective is to raise the money privately. But Tanenbaum emphasized that since the Expo is not a private sector event, "there needs to be commitment from all levels of government." 

That starts with rejoining the Bureau International des Expositions, which Canada backed out of under the Harper Government. As a result, Canada is one of only a handful of nations that is not a member of the 170-state organization, and had no representation or pavilion at the 2015 Expo in Milan. Canada would need to reattain membership in the organization before a bid is placed, which Wong-Tam believes will happen imminently. "We have positive indications from Ottawa that it's only a matter of time before the BIE membership is renewed," said the Councillor. "There's no reason for Canada not to be a member of the BIE, especially if we're seeking a seat at the United Nations Security Council. You want to be respected as a global leader on all fronts and because the BIE is the fourth largest multilateral organization on the planet, you really don't want to miss that."

To move forward, a letter of candidature by the Prime Minister would need to be submitted no later than November 1 2016. After that, the bid process is opened up, and a comprehensive bid book must then be developed and delivered by the summer of 2017. The Expo will be rewarded to one of the bid cities in June 2018. "If we announce our intention to bid we'll be declared immediately a front-runner, Expo 2025 is ours to lose," said Wong-Tam, who again emphasized the Expo's ability to spur action on important projects. "Expo 2025 is not to distract us from city priorities. We want to use Expo 2025 to prioritize and accelerate the important work Council wants to do. We want to accelerate waterfront revitalization, affordable housing construction, and higher-order transit along the water's edge. We want to focus the collective strength of our citizens and businesses to build that smart city using the best innovative green technologies today to create that model city."

Toronto sign, Pan Am Games, Expo 2025, image by Marcus MitanisThe Toronto sign has proved to be one of the Pan Am Games' most popular legacy projects, image by Marcus Mitanis

That's the case that Councillor Wong-Tam and the working group, alongside industry professionals and other key Expo supporters, will be making in a series of deputations at City Hall on Tuesday, May 24. Those deputations will be made to the Executive Committee, who will receive a report from staff recommending that the City should not "provide additional resources to support the bid until such time as funding commitments are delivered by the provincial and/or the federal government concerning support for Expo 2025 event-related infrastructure and operating costs."

A vote on whether Toronto should host the Expo is expected to be held at City Council's June 7th meeting. "We're confident that we can show the elected officials and the community at large that this was not a hastily packaged proposal, that it's actually a large volume of work that's taken a large number of people to do, and we've done it in the most broad and collaborative way possible," said Wong-Tam. "We're really excited about making our case to the Executive Committee on the 24th and I think they'll be pleasantly surprised what we bring to them."

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