Ask the Editors: Is Toronto doing enough to fight for its artistic identity?

Tell us: What is the practicality of Toronto’s policy of leasing hundreds of thousands of square feet of public land to film studios?

After amassing a reputation as a leader in cultural freedom and economic development, Toronto is all but dead at the box office. A study by the Harry Jack Baker Institute at the University of Toronto found the city has been getting about a tenth of its population to show up for each of the past 10 months. Big films such as “Annihilation” didn’t catch the public’s attention and “Mean Girls” was disappointing. “War of the Planet of the Apes” was a hit, but much of it is set in a dystopian version of Kansas.

At the same time, local news media have reported that rents are going up in the city, and the three major local television stations are consolidating to keep costs down. And with real estate prices rising fast, the city’s downtown is struggling to keep up.

The most interesting policy to me is Toronto’s leasing of a large swath of its waterfront to film studios, and why the city should abandon it.

In 2017, the Toronto Film Centre unveiled plans to erect more than 400 sound stages in the old lakefront space, the brainchild of a group of real estate developers and TFC board members. The facility would be a welcome step to keep more Canadian productions in the city, particularly those that can’t afford a studio and shoot on location elsewhere.

But Ontario’s provincial government has gotten cold feet. Premier Doug Ford has cut funding for the film studios, saying they would cost too much, and the city says it has no control over the project.

Here’s the thing: In a city where family incomes are projected to decline by $4,300 over the next 30 years, the studio should help keep families and tourism around the downtown, not lead to rising rents and burdensome tax hikes. Even if filmmakers paid lower taxes than Toronto residents, renting out space in the city would mean less competition for new restaurants and an increase in businesses that could help make the city more livable.

First, Toronto could seize a point of leverage over the new film studio by ending the leasing arrangement. The city has condemned existing projects on a piece of land owned by Bell Canada. The government should condemn the lease on the land that the film studios are occupying as well. Ontario should reimburse the city for the land, which would then be used for more beneficial purposes, such as keeping up the downtown and contributing to local jobs. This would fulfill the promise Premier Ford made in the last provincial election, when he publicly rejected the expansion of Air Canada centre in Toronto.

Of course, doing so would anger those who benefit from the lease and others who may use the studios as they wish, but would like Toronto to do a better job of preserving its lifestyle. And it would be cheaper.

Toronto is trying to focus on ways to allow people to live in downtown neighborhoods, but such policies are rarely successful. Movie studios do not require parks and local amenities, like grocery stores, to stay put — film services can be outsourced to other cities in Ontario. Of course, Toronto could just sell the land, but that would also come with revenue loss and a higher tax burden.

In the end, I’m not sure there’s much practical advantage in leasing this public land to studios at all.

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