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What Toronto would look like without the Pan Am Games

Historians usually get the last word on defining legacy. 30 years after it hosted the 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles still supports youth sports programs and sports research with the profits it made, while Glasgow, Scotland, is taking 10 years to formally evaluate the lasting value of its 2014 Commonwealth Games. Winnipeggers can still swim in the pool the city built for the 1967 Pan Am Games, but lost a prized velodrome following their 1999 hosting gig.

Until the closing ceremonies are finished, questions about Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games long-term legacy might be best left to fortune tellers. But with some venues already open, community-based programs already fostering volunteerism and increased physical activity and many government and institutional efforts putting the finishing touches on making the GTA Pan Am-pretty, it’s fair to ask what the Games have already brought Toronto.

What would the city look like without them? The Union-Pearson Express might still be in the midst of a feasibility study rather than on the verge of opening. Ontario’s Trans Canada Trail would likely have many more gaps without Pan Am-driven provincial funding for 250 kilometres connecting communities from Ottawa to Windsor and Fort Erie to Huntsville. The Queens Quay revitalization would likely be even further behind schedule than it already is. There’d be no PrideHouse connecting LGBT people to sport in an inclusive environment nor any PANAMANIA, a 35-day arts and culture festival happening during the games.

Public and private efforts gone all out to present the city in the best possible light for the duration of both the Pan Am and Parapan Games. A city that’s been starved for civic improvements gets to feel put-together for a summer.

“The adrenaline has sped up a lot of infrastructure improvements like the Pearson train. I think the athlete’s village is another example of what the games can bring that might not otherwise have come about,” says Bruce Kidd, vice-president and principal of University of Toronto Scarborough. A track and field athlete at the 1964 Olympics, Kidd took part in a colloquium this week on the history behind the Pan Am Games and he was a member of the 1996 Toronto Olympic bid committee. “Toronto and the province for years talked about cleaning up the West Donlands for housing and community building but they never did it. It was always too daunting, it was always too complicated. But once they had that deadline, holy smokes.”

The fear of white elephants always hangs over major event-driven projects. But the Toronto 2015 organizing committee worked hard to learn from the mistakes of other games. The 80-acre athlete’s village, for example, will likely do an excellent job providing housing for 10,000 athletes, coaches and team officials during the games. But much of the design and planning around the project has focused on what happens when the games are over. For all the attention it will have during the games, the village’s transformation into the mixed-use Canary District—with up to 100 affordable ownership condos and townhouses and 253 affordable rental condos and townhouses—is the ultimate goal. With a YMCA, a residence for 500 George Brown College students, a new streetcar line, an Aboriginal Community Health Centre, a park and a 40,000-square-foot retail promenade, the project will bring life to a neglected district, no matter what happens at the games.

Sports enthusiasts would say that facilities like the Mattamy National Cycling Centre velodrome in Milton, which opened in January, and the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Aquatics Centre and Field House at University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC), which opened last fall, are worth having just to put Toronto on the global sports map. Canada’s biggest city hadn’t built a world-class swimming pool since the 1970s, a major obstacle to attracting elite athletes and all they bring with them—funding, competitions, prestige and innovation.

“We can now bid on, and hopefully win, future major sporting events. I’m not talking about the Olympics, but other events like international swim championships,” says Andrew Weir, vice president of communications at Tourism Toronto.

But even these purpose-built facilities were built with life after the games in mind. Unlike the Olympics, which has, until recently, required host cities to centralize venues, like in the case of Montreal or Beijing’s underused Olympic parks, the Pan Am Games is more flexible about what goes where. That’s allowed Toronto 2015 to take a more community-minded approach.

“We looked at how the communities around these facilities were going to benefit from these facilities,” says Fulvio Martinez, manager of Community Outreach and Media Relations for Toronto 2015. “The community was thought of the whole way through.”

In the case of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Scarborough—which has removable seats, a pool that can be divided and adapted for many uses, an Olympic-style warm-up pool that can also be adapted, multiple gymnasiums, a fitness centre and many other amenities—the facility was a long time coming. The need for a major pool in Scarborough was identified in the mid-1980s during an assessment for an Olympic bid, says Kidd. The campus itself had only a double gym and a few squash courts for 10,000 students. In the early 2000s, civic leaders began to talk about a master plan for the campus. “Very quickly that conversation became much more about Scarborough. One of the observations made was that people didn’t even know UTSC existed. One of the cries from the community was that you need to be more visible and you need to anchor infrastructure for this part of the city,” says Andrew Arifuzzaman, chief administrative officer at UTSC. Talk about a shared sporting facility was eventually absorbed into larger talks about Pan Am venues. If the Pan Am Games hadn’t happened, Scarborough might have some sort of modest suburban rec centre, but it wouldn’t have an activity-magnet like the aquatics centre has already become.

The funding scheme has already covered the operating costs of the major new venues for the next 20 years, says Martinez. Kidd points out that because the institutions that are getting the venues also had to pay a significant chunk of the capital costs, they had to know exactly what they needed. “If you have to pay 44 per cent of the costs and you’re a cash-strapped university or municipality, you’re only going to do that if it makes sense and you’ve got a business plan to make it work,” says Kidd.

Then there are the effects that are harder to measure. Martinez says he’s already met media outfits from Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru who might not otherwise direct attention at Toronto. “The attention we’re getting as a city is incredible. Unless it’s TIFF, we’re not usually in the public light we’re in now in Latin America, the Caribbean and, to a certain degree, the US.”

Weir says sports tourism has been a priority for the city for about eight years. “That’s across the whole region, including Mississauga. These venues are an important part of that strategy,” says Weir.

Certainly the volunteer program, which will put 23,000 of the 60,000 applicants to work during the games, has fostered new enthusiasm about sport and Toronto boosting. Programs like IGNITE and Playing for Keeps have worked to turn excitement about the games into lasting social capital that enriches the social tissue of all Toronto neighbourhoods. Much of that will be unleashed this summer.

Of course, Kidd points out that for the legacy to last, there will have to be an ongoing effort to keep the Pan Am spirit alive.

“I’m sure the games will inspire, but there have to be accessible programs with good leadership. It’s got to be day-to-day. It’s not about one visit to a pool,” says Kidd. “We really need a plan for that.”
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