One heck of a rounding error

(The Aquatarium is at centre right. Let  me know if you spot the extra 6,000 square feet.)

I took it as a compliment on Tuesday night when Tony Barnes, chairman of the Aquatarium steering committee, followed up his New Year's wishes to city council with an ironic “Happy Groundhog Day."

It was a reference to my recent column comparing the repetitiveness of planned Aquatarium openings and delays to the 1993 film in which Bill Murray's character finds himself reliving the same day over and over again.

Except on Tuesday we also learned that, during this supposed Groundhog Day loop, things were not at all the same at the foot of Broad Street.

So different did things become during this latest Aquatarium loop that we ended up with a different Aquatarium from the one we expected.

Barnes revealed to city council that the final version of the tourism attraction will cost $3.5 million more than most recently expected, increasing in price from $22 million to $25.5 million.

But, not to worry because, surprisingly, those extra millions are also buying us a bigger building.

Barnes also told council the facility has grown, from the initial 27,000 square feet to 33,000 square feet.

Aquatarium executive director Bill Rogerson said Tuesday the increase in square footage is the result of mezzanine expansion, the addition of two washrooms and extra space for otter terraces.

On Wednesday, however, he acknowledged only developer Simon Fuller has the exact details that explain the need for an extra six thousand square feet.

Six thousand square feet is one heck of a rounding error.

It's a revision the steering committee and Aquatarium staff only learned about on December 10, when the developer presented them with both the cost increase and the bigger size.

There was really no opportunity or no point at which the steering committee was brought a decision or they had to vote on a motion to increase our square footage,” said Rogerson.

The cost increase was no big surprise to councillors; Mayor David Henderson has been preparing the public for it for a long time now.

The size increase, however, seems to have caught our elected officials off-guard.

The mayor certainly seemed surprised, publicly musing about how to square this discrepancy with the initial agreement of purchase and sale.

That deal, dating back to early 2011 when the facility was still called the Maritime Discovery Centre (MDC), outlines a gross area of about 27,000 square feet.

The difference might explain the unreasonably long delay in getting the official, legal handover of the base building from Fuller to the Aquatarium board finalized.

It could also cause fresh headaches for city officials, who will have to factor in whatever impact the extra space – the equivalent of a reasonably sized mall store – will have on the layout, in particular parking.

Dare we mention operating costs? The city is contributing the equivalent of $210,000 a year now; will the demands of running a bigger facility mean a request for a bigger contribution?

In fairness, Fuller is the one building the thing, and he is sinking $4.6 million of his own cash into it; this project is costing him more than he set out to pay.

There's also a decent chance the Aquatarium, once open, will have the “Wow Factor” supporters are talking about, in sufficient quantity to make us all forget about this squabbling over a few thousand square feet.

But this latest moment in civic politics is nonetheless a useful lesson on the importance of communication.

In the most significant local infrastructure project in recent history, a 6,000-square-foot error managed to slip under the city's radar until the work was all done.

If the only communication was a “one-more-thing-I-should-mention-folks,” that is one heck of a “thing.”

(UPDATE: Simon Fuller got back to me later Wednesday afternoon. His information suggests that, indeed, there was a failure to communicate, but it may have been on the steering committee's part. Apparently, the drawings for the facility, included in the agreement of purchase and sale as a schedule, call for a 33,000-square-foot building, even though the text speaks of the initial 27,000 square feet. That's because changes were made to the design after the original federal funding agreement - changes  all sides knew about.

So, to sum up, it was 33,000 all along, but few people realized it.

Check Friday's edition of the R&T for my untangling of this affair. We'll probably have it up tomorrow at