Is it right that a private corporation enjoys a monopoly over our public park lands and can decide which groups use a public park and on what terms? What if, for example, a group wanted to establish a weekly farmers’ market at Kew Gardens?
On or about June 2, 2010 the City of Toronto granted a sole-source contract (which means no other bids were allowed) to Tuggs Incorporated over the then Boardwalk Café, the patios, the parking lots, the Sommerville and Kew Gardens concession stands and four parks: Woodbine Beaches, Ashbridges Bay, Beaches, and Kew Gardens parks. This exclusive lease was granted until 2028. The city gave Tuggs a monopoly over the restaurant and patios, and exclusive vending rights for food and beverages over the park lands and the two concession stands.
There was a large public outcry in 2010 when the proposed lease caught the attention of the media, mostly because it was being sole-sourced and competitive bids were excluded. This went against the advice of the city solicitor, who argued it should be put to public tender to maximize the benefits and options to the taxpayers. The Tuggs deal was debated at city council “in camera” (behind closed doors) in May, 2010. Later my requests under the Freedom of Information Act to determine the costs to the taxpayers of breaking the lease were denied and held to be privileged and/or claimed not to exist by the city.
A big concern has always been that community groups would find themselves excluded from using the parks for community events. This seems to be happening with a dedicated group of residents trying to organize a seasonal farmers’ market at Kew Gardens. The group has approached Tuggs to ask for a price to use land on the north part of Kew Gardens for a weekly farmers’ market. No price has been given. Tuggs has indicated it cannot support the proposal in Kew Gardens, and made alternate proposals (such as using Woodbine Beach Park immediately West of the swimming pool) which, for the organizers, are not practical or realistic.
Tuggs further asked the group to provide, among other things, a brand logo, a three- to five-year business plan, a letter of support from local businesses, a letter of approval from the parks department, the names of the 20 farm vendors who would be participating, full liability insurance, and much more. Not only would this take months to organize by volunteers, in the absence of a price and terms the group cannot approach prospective vendors. Vendors cannot commit without knowing the price and terms.
The proposed seasonal farmers’ market with all its community benefits has no starting point. Even if the organizers delivered on this long list, Tuggs can still say no in its sole discretion. There is no appeal.
If proposed community events such as a weekly farmers’ market in Kew Gardens were overseen by the city and not a private corporation, there would be an elected councillor and staff to assist, an avenue of appeal based on municipal law, and ultimately a city ombudsman to help if required. This has all been precluded by the private monopoly that was granted.
One solution would be to ask the city legal department to report to council the cost of amending the lease to release the parklands. The best solution is for community groups and residents to determine how to enjoy public parks. The “privatization” of our public parks for profit is bad public policy all around.