A few years ago, at the dawn of our 100th issue, we took a fascinating look back at a number of the quotes, blurbs, and past announcements of new products, venues, or avenues Cirque du Soleil announced it would be exploring (that we then published), wondering what had come of them, as many had quietly disappeared or were shelved, never to be heard from again. We uncovered several in our search through our news archives and then spun our discoveries – or re-discoveries as it were – into a three-part series for Fascination, entitled: “Cirque’s Dreams of the Past: A What If?”
In Part One, we explored a number of rumors and announcements regarding “permanent” or “resident” shows made through the years that didn’t pan out. In Part Two, we examined the number of announced and/or rumored media potentials from Cirque du Soleil – from filmed shows and books to new music CDs – many of which never saw the light of day. And in the third and final installment, we explored what could have been in regards to projects beyond Cirque du Soleil’s traditional space – entertainment and media – and dove into the realm of “Complexes Cirque”.
With the recent release of more details on “The Celebrate Project”, the Cirque du Soleil Theme Park and Resort under development in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (with Grupo Vidanta and The Goddard Group) becoming available, and with us celebrating our 150th issue this month, my thoughts turned back to another of Cirque’s once-upon-a-time ideas, one we touched upon a bit in that article series – THE PEEL PROJECT. We’ve learned a bit more about it since then (thanks to a few documents discovered in our archives), so come with us as we re-examine what might have been along the Peel Basin in the du Havre sector of Montreal.
THE PRESS RELEASE
On June 22, 2005, Cirque du Soleil and Loto-Quebec unveiled a proposal for the establishment of a world-class entertainment complex to be located on the site of the Peel Basin in the du Havre sector of Montréal. The announcement confirmed the years-old rumors of Cirque involving itself in entertainment venues that would offer a wide range of entertainment options branded with Cirque du Soleil’s flair. And they hoped would provide Montréal and Québec with a powerful lever to spur the development of the local economy, tourism and the cultural sector. The project would also have translated into the creation of 6,450 direct and indirect jobs. Loto-Québec would be serving as project manager (investing an estimated at $997 million), contribution from private partners was estimated to be in the order of $178 million), while the Cirque du Soleil would look after design, creative and artistic direction of the project.
“This project is what we are recommending to the Québec Government as being the best solution for the future of the Casino de Montréal,” explained Mr. Alain Cousineau, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Loto-Québec. “The recommendation is based on the rigorous studies we have conducted, as well as on the creative genius of the Cirque du Soleil. In addition to being a modern reflection of Québec’s cultural dynamism and Montréal’s exceptional vitality, the complex will offer visitors an unparalleled entertainment experience while showcasing the historical character of the site.”
According to the President and founder of the Cirque du Soleil, “the Cirque du Soleil is investing all of its creativity and global expertise in this project in order to ensure that Montréal can fully benefit from the international spin-offs to be generated. Indeed, we are envisioning a concept whose outstanding components will make for a truly world-class entertainment complex. We sincerely hope to be able to invite the millions of people we meet in the four corners of the planet to come and enjoy the new complex, which we are convinced will more than meet their expectations.”
No Increase in Game Offerings — The complex would encompass a 300-room hotel and 2,500-seat performance hall able to accommodate international touring productions. The Casino de Montréal would also be relocated to the site, offering more spacious facilities than the existing establishment on Île Notre-Dame. As outlined in Loto-Québec’s Development Plan, however, game offerings will not be increased. In addition, the complex would include a boldly designed spa, an Artists’ Wharf, where artistic creators of all kinds will benefit from an extraordinary window on the world, as well as a park that could play host to the Cirque du Soleil’s Big Top. The entire complex would bear the signature of the Cirque du Soleil.
Exhibition Center — Furthermore, Loto-Québec has negotiated an agreement, pending the government’s approval, to eventually acquire a parcel of land to the west of the entertainment complex on which a commercial exhibition center could be established for business and trade shows. The cost of acquiring this land is estimated to be $25 million. The Corporation has also received a show of interest from world leaders in the sector in associating with the project as investors and operators. Assuming that all of these conditions are met,
Loto-Québec is inviting the economic community, particularly the tourism sector, to mobilize and assume an active role in realizing the exhibition center project. The project made public would also see the construction of a monorail to interconnect the entertainment complex, exhibition center, and the future soccer stadium whose planned construction in the Technoparc was recently announced. As such, the entire sector would enjoy the benefits of a light transportation system allowing for efficient circulation between the principal activities/centers of attraction in the du Havre area. The Peel Basin was proposed as the site for the complex because it is an enclaved area surrounded by physical barriers separating it from residential zones, and because it is located near downtown hotels and Old Montréal, both major tourist attractions. Situated only 2.9 kilometers as the crow flies from the Casino’s current location on Île Notre-Dame, the new site would not precipitate easier access to the gaming house.
Economic Spin-offs — According to a study of economic spin-offs conducted by Université du Québec à Montréal professor Yves Rabeau, the project would create 14,200 jobs/year during the planning and construction period. The operation of the complex and exhibition center would create another 3,150 direct and indirect jobs, and an additional 3,300 direct and indirect jobs would be generated by the tourist drawing power of the complex and exhibition center, for a grand total of 6,450 new jobs over and above the Casino de Montréal’s existing workforce.
This project emerged from a proposal outlined in the 2004-2007 Development Plan presented by Loto-Québec last year. The Corporation’s proposal will remain the subject of discussion and clarification, in particular, as part of the evaluation process announced last week by the provincial Government. If the Government gives the project a green light, it will then be submitted for the approval of municipal authorities and will be the subject of public consultations, as prescribed in municipal by-laws.
2010-2011 Target — Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil are committed to cooperating fully with these consultations. The target is to be able to inaugurate the new complex in 2010-2011. “We are firm in our commitment today to approach each phase of this process with total transparency and openness,” underlined Mr. Cousineau. “We sincerely hope that this project inspires a spirit of enthusiasm and unity on a par with our creative capacity and sense of innovation.” In addition, specific measures will be taken to maximize the benefits of the project for the residents of southwestern Montréal. For example, Loto-Québec intends to adopt various policies to promote the employability and hiring of residents from the sector. Discussions in that regard will be conducted with various community organizations in the area. “This partnership between Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil is made possible by the fact that the two parties share the same values of integrity, social responsibility, innovation, uncompromising customer service and respect for employees,” concluded Mr. Cousineau. “If the Government gives its approval to this proposal, we are convinced that Montréal and Québec as a whole will gain a powerful engine for the development of the economy, and the tourism and cultural sectors, while opening an exceptional window on the artistic talents of Québecers and the outstanding quality of life in Montréal.”
PRINCIPAL PROJECT COMPONETS
Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil are proposing the creation of a major entertainment complex encompassing a hotel, performance hall, garden space, casino, and other areas for artistic creation and expression. Showcasing Québec’s cultural dynamism and Montréal’s flair for living, the complex will be designed by Cirque du Soleil creative personnel, who would endow it with a style and character unique in the world. The project will also reflect and promote the rich heritage of the Peel Basin area, which played a key role in the history of Montréal. And thanks to the numerous green spaces and promenades along the Peel and Wellington Basins, it would allow Montréalers to reclaim a large part of the city’s du Havre sector for their enjoyment.
1. OUTDOOR STAGE — An impressive component of the project is the proposed open-air stage to be equipped with the most advanced technical installations. This stage will be able to play host to shows for up to 8,000-10,000 spectators.
2. PERFORMANCE HALL — To be operated by a private partner, the performance hall will accommodate audiences of up to 2,500, allowing it to stage major productions like the great musicals that tour the world.
3. HOTEL — The project calls for the construction of a 300-room hotel to be financed and operated by a private partner. This would be a superior-class establishment which could attract the high-limits players interested in integrated offers. The building would feature some 20 floors and seduce guests with its exceptional views of the Saint Lawrence River and the downtown skyline.
4. CASINO — As outlined in the Development Plan, game offerings at the casino will not be increased. The casino will occupy a surface area of 53,000 m2, or 16% more space than the existing building, bringing it in line with today’s norms within the industry in terms of the density of machines and tables per square meter. For their part, the casino’s restaurants and bars will be able to accommodate close to 1,500 patrons at a time, or about double the number the current building can.
5. GREEN ROOF — To be constructed on a single level, the new gaming house will be particularly noteworthy for its green roof and its natural lighting thanks to its many skylights.
6. SHOPPING AREA AND SPA — The project calls for the development of boutiques and a 2,000 square-meter spa to be submerged under a cascading waterfall, thus creating a spectacular effect. The commercial area will occupy a total area of 4,500 m2.
7. GARDEN SPACE –- A park for all seasons, the Espace Jardins becomes a nexus for culture and creativity where Cirque will premiere all its traveling shows under the blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau.
8. THE PEEL BASIN –- The Peel Basin will be restored to its former status as a Montreal landmark, becoming a unique and animated site dedicated to the arts and festivity; a joyful venue that will enhance Montreal’s renown and reputation as a tourist destination; a historic international crossroads reclaimed from neglect and rededicated to exchanges between Montreal and the world; a clean, green site in harmony with the environment; a dynamic meeting place for the public and the creative community; and an urban focal point where Montrealers and visitors can catch the irrepressible spirit of Cirque du Soleil.
9. MARINA – Currently disused, the project also proposes the development of a marina in the Wellington Basin, which could accommodate boats in transit. This facility will serve as a permanent testament to the island character of Montréal, while linking the complex to the Saint Lawrence via the Lachine Canal.
10. ARTISTS’ WHARF — Located on the edge of the Wellington Basin which is slated for restoration, the Artists’ Wharf will allow artists to create and share their works with the public. These spaces will serve as a vibrant window on Québec culture and will enable local artists to show off their talents to millions of people each year.
A private partner will operate a monorail system to span five separate stations. The first will be intermodal and provide a link to Montréal’s public transportation system; the second station will be located at the entrance to the entertainment complex; the third will be situated at the parking facility across from the complex; the fourth will serve the future exhibition center; and the last station will be at the soccer stadium to be built in the Technoparc. The complex will also include an underground parking facility able to accommodate 3,000 vehicles. Moreover, Loto-Québec will build an aboveground parking lot in proximity to the complex on a parcel of land currently occupied by a warehouse-type store, thus providing an additional 1,000 spaces.
With every large project comes controversy and such did not escape this new project. To us it looked like a great match; the Montréal Casino had suffered as “high roller” customers took their business to other more exciting cities and Lotto-Quebec obviously felt they had to modernize or risk falling further behind. But there were other concerns than just gaming. Placing this new project in the Peel Basin/Point St-Charles area (which, on our map is marked as an industrial area) had activists concerned that any move would mean more crime and traffic in what some considered a residential area. But Lotto-Quebec officials insisted the area was selected because it was out of the way of most residential areas of the city, yet close to the big hotels and Old Montréal.
It would take time for this proposal to move its way through the planning and approval process, but neither party expected the push-back they had received. Ultimately, Cirque du Soleil announced it was withdrawing from the Peel Basin project as of March 10, 2006. The reason: given the context of uncertainty associated with this project, it had become impossible for Cirque du Soleil to pursue its involvement. Daniel Lamarre, Cirque du Soleil’s President and Chief Operating Officer, explained: “We cannot live with uncertainty for almost two years, not knowing if there will be a project at all down the road. We must protect the interests of our company and employees, as well as carry on with our development strategy”.
In view of the Cirque du Soleil’s decision to withdrawal from the Peel Basin recreational and tourist complex project Loto-Québec also announced that it would not be pursuing its plans for the relocation of the Casino de Montréal to this sector. The announcement came after the Corporation’s Board of Directors confirmed the decision.
“The very essence of our project was bound to the dynamic presence of the Cirque du Soleil, to its distinctive signature, its unique style and character which was to permeate all the components of the complex, to its remarkable creativity, and to the Cirque’s capacity to attract private partners,” underlined Loto-Québec President, Mr. Alain Cousineau. “In the absence of these characteristics, the project is no longer able to distinguish itself definitively within the casino industry of today’s new competitive landscape and to maximize its ability to draw visitors from outside Québec.”
“I would like to thank Guy Laliberté, Daniel Lamarre and the entire Cirque du Soleil team, whose decision I understand,” concluded Mr. Cousineau. “We greatly appreciate their collaboration and the fruitful exchange of ideas and expertise in planning this project, which had the potential of enriching Montréal, particularly the South-West Borough, with a formidable development tool.”
In the aftermath, Alain Cousineau, CEO and Chairman of Loto-Québec, sent out an opinion letter to Québec’s major dailies in reaction to the comments made regarding the cancellation of the Peel Bassin project…
It was a year ago to the day, on June 22, 2005, that Loto-Québec and the Cirque du Soleil submitted a proposal for the creation of a world-class entertainment center on the site of Montréal’s Peel Basin. Over the past weeks, we have read and heard a lot of comments about the reasons for and the consequences of abandoning the project. With many of these comments being based on erroneous and/or insufficient information, it is important to delineate the principal elements of the project in order to allow for enlightened reflection that can help bear fruit for the future.
Loto-Québec’s investment in the project would not have had any effect on the Government’s debt level or interest costs as it would have been financed entirely by the Corporation’s borrowing power. The project was profitable and built on realistic (even conservative) economic hypotheses. Indeed, the Interministerial Committee presided over by Mr. Guy Coulombe concluded that, “with respect to the objectives being pursued, the project satisfies profitability criteria, both as an integrated new project, and also as compared to the status quo.” The expected rate of return fully justified the investment required, particularly given that the project represented a sustainable solution to the challenges of the new competitive environment confronting the Casino de Montréal’s profitability in the medium-term. It is also important to note that the status quo will have an appreciable toll on the Casino’s net profits, and consequently, on the dividends ultimately remitted to the Government.
All financial scenarios called for Loto-Québec to assume full responsibility for the payment of its property taxes, representing the remittance of an additional $30 million annually to local authorities. It is true that preliminary discussions were held with municipal authorities to examine the possibility that the financial burden of the hotel and performance hall would be along the lines of that of comparable establishments. However, all financial scenarios submitted foresaw a fiscal contribution in accordance with or higher than the current norms for buildings of the same category.
While representing a positive element, this infrastructure did not constitute a necessary condition for the realization of the Bassin Peel project. Moreover, at no time did the rejection of this component have any negative consequences on the entertainment center project’s profitability or viability.
Regarding the actual role of the Cirque du Soleil: The Cirque du Soleil is neither a real estate developer, nor a hotel and theatre operator. Rather, the Cirque is in the business of creative content development, cultural animation, and the production of original shows. If the project had gone ahead as planned, the Cirque would have been associated with it under the same conditions governing the other projects in which it participates around the globe. Nowhere else in the world has the Cirque invested in a performance hall. Why should it have had to be any different in Montréal? The right to use the Cirque du Soleil’s logo, signature and trademarks represents such large sums that they are difficult to quantify, but these have as great a value as the bricks and mortar that would have been used to erect the complex.
By serving as designer and artistic director of the entertainment center, the Cirque would have lent it tremendous drawing power that would certainly have set the project apart from any other comparable endeavour. The Cirque would have produced shows for the performance hall, which it would have occupied for 10-12 weeks per year. Moreover, it would have offered its special brand of animation both inside and at the large outdoor plaza throughout the year. In addition, it would have developed a unique central bar concept for the Casino thanks to its acrobatic and artistic presentations, and its unparalleled worldwide recognition and reputation would have served to bolster the complex’s international marketing efforts. In short, the Cirque would have had a major and significant presence on the site.
The attraction of private partners was also part of the Cirque du Soleil’s mandate, and several groups expressed an interest in joining Loto-Québec and the Cirque at the outset but could not move forward publicly without confirmation that the project itself was sure to go ahead. Therefore, our discussions with these potential private partners went as far as they could at the time. Although the discussions were held in accordance with a strict confidentiality agreement, suffice it to say that an accord was concluded with a leading international hotel chain and talks were well underway with a major consortium that was prepared to finance the construction of and operate the theatre.
We had initiated a constructive dialogue with groups and associations representing Montréal’s South-West sector, and highly promising partnership avenues had been paved which would have enabled us to maximize the economic benefits for the district, particularly in terms of employment opportunities. Despite the fact that one group attempted to persuade the others not to collaborate with Loto-Québec, we were definitely heading in the right direction, and I am convinced that we could have developed a project that would have served as a model of productive exchange and partnership with the community, as the Cirque du Soleil has succeeded in doing in the St-Michel district.
The Québec Government endorsed the Coulombe Report, authorizing Loto-Québec to invest $35 million and to pursue the development of the project with an eye toward public consultations to be held. The Report clearly established that the benefits for the economic and urban development of Montréal outweighed the potential drawbacks. With respect to the concerns raised by Public Health, we were confident in being able to demonstrate that the principal apprehensions expressed were not well founded regarding the relation between the proximity of the Casino, the “symbolic” increase in game offerings, and the increase in Casino attendance on the one hand, and the increase in the prevalence of compulsive gambling on the other. In any event, the public health questions could certainly have been the object of attenuating measures that would have satisfied all concerned.
When the Cirque du Soleil withdrew from the project after the publication of the Coulombe Report, seeing the decision making process as being too uncertain for a commercial enterprise involved in numerous projects around the world, the Bassin Peel project lost its purpose and unique character that would have truly made it stand out from the competition. Being pursued by suitors from all sides, it is quite understandable that the Cirque did not want to risk losing out on any other interesting opportunities elsewhere in the world.
The Bassin Peel proposal was a solid project that was anything but short on talent, creativity and potential. It involved a private partner with a tremendous capacity to create and the desire to contribute in a concrete fashion to the promotion and development of Montréal. At the same time, the project involved a public corporation that, confronted with the challenges related to the future of the Casino de Montréal, was hoping to take advantage of the opportunity to create a lever of economic, cultural and tourism development.
It is not within the project itself that we must look for what failed to work. Let us hope that this experience will help the groups working at all levels for the advancement of Montréal to work together in order to find the solutions to overcome the inevitable challenges involved in realizing such development projects.
The redevelopment project certainly looked interesting, but would it have been a success? We’ll never know. Cirque du Soleil may have abandoned this particular project to pursue the expansion of its resident show program and offerings via 45 DEGREES but it hasn’t abandoned its ambitions of opening or operating this type of “Complexes Cirque” – its partnership with Grupo Vidanta certainly proves this. And who knows what will come next! But it’s interesting to see what might have been, isn’t it?