Aquatarium hate is over the top

(Aquatarium executive director Bill Rogerson speaks to city council on Tuesday.)

It’s no great secret that the Aquatarium has always had its detractors.

Antipathy to what was once to be called the Maritime Discovery Centre dates back to the previous decade and the failed uprising against the adjacent Tall Ships Landing condominium tower on the city’s waterfront.

Without Tall Ships there would be no Aquatarium, and 10 years ago the Ontario Municipal Board tossed out an appeal against the condo tower.

After the promised anchor attraction finally opened last year, it seemed that animosity had mostly vanished in the face of evidence that, all told, the Aquatarium is pretty cool.

Councillors usually known for their deep skepticism were converts, rhapsodizing about the new attraction’s “wow factor” and in general, there seemed to be an ambient goodwill toward the whole thing not unlike what we are seeing now for the more recently opened railway tunnel.

It turns out all that was needed to suck that goodwill out of the air was a request for money.

I have argued recently that a much more detailed look at the Aquatarium’s numbers is needed, in particular a frank discussion about the challenges it will face in diversifying its revenue sources.

And Bill Rogerson raising the spectre of closure if that extra $400,000 doesn’t come in came across as galling from an institution that is now, by Brockville standards, too big to fail.

Councillor Jane Fullarton on Tuesday was the most explicit in calling BS on closure, advising Rogerson and his colleagues to find efficiencies in their own operation while they also seek more revenue.

Finally, the Aquatarium’s pitch to take over tourism services from the Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce is problematic to say the least, in particular because it’s unclear to this observer how such a move would actually increase Aquatarium operating funds.

(Again, disclosure: My daughter did work for the Chamber tourism office in a seasonal position.)

As journalists, it’s our job to pick apart all these things and to question, in the interest of the general taxpaying public, how all the different bits are supposed to fit together.

But the bile that has been pouring out online since the latest Aquatarium request became public has reached, dare I say it, Snarlingtown levels.

Suddenly, it’s as if everyone out there has held firm to the belief, right from the beginning, that the Aquatarium was always ever going to be a white elephant cruelly deposited on prime waterfront land by an elitist council forever eager to curry favour with a particular Ottawa millionaire.

Gone and forgotten is the general sense of local pride that was palpable upon the Aquatarium opening its doors, or even on that day the prime minister used the place for a photo op.

It almost makes one wonder whether some of this outrage could be lessened were they to park a giant rubber duck in the Fair Jeanne’s dock.

And it makes one realize how short is contemporary memory.

Mayor David Henderson has said from the start that he expected the Aquatarium to cost more than initially projected. It’s an expectation any municipal official would have had, because that is usually the way things go for any large project, public or private.

While the goal has always been to make the Aquatarium profitable, there has also been an expectation it would, in its early years, be something of a loss leader for the local tourism industry.

Rogerson brought a hotel report to Tuesday’s meeting suggesting exactly this has happened, pointing to a jump in occupancy and room revenues since the Aquatarium’s opening.

Those same graphs suggest that upward trend started before the facility ever opened. Like all the rest of it, these numbers merit a full debate.

But to act all indignant that the Aquatarium did not turn into a cash cow immediately upon opening, when we all knew this to be unrealistic, is hardly helpful.

The Aquatarium was always going to take a few years to reach sustainability, and it makes sense for the city to help it out along the way.

The level to which the city helps it out, and the terms of such assistance, are legitimate questions for debate.

But spewing hate at the thing like it’s 2007 all over again is a waste of time and energy.