We otter get our facts straight

If Donald Trump were to run for Brockville mayor, he would start by declaring the Aquatarium “a disaster” and vow to tear it down. He would promise to make the otters pay for the job.

He would harness the power of the Facebook comments section to ride a wave of populist rage, and he would further stoke the flames by pushing a sketchy narrative about the facility one cynical soul recently called the “Otter Palace.”

And that narrative would sound something like this:

Way back in 2006, Simon Fuller wanted to build a Maritime Discovery Centre as a major tourism attraction in Brockville. Our prudent city councillors were dead-set against such an irresponsible idea, knowing that, once built, the MDC would be a breeding-ground for technocrats whose sole job would be to approach city council for more money every year.

So, in order to sweeten the pot, Fuller promised to build a honking big condo tower next to the MDC to give the city heaps of tax revenue.

At which point the city changed its mind and decided: “We really otter built it.”

This narrative is about as absurd as the pun I just let slip; and lately I have heard it circulated, in speech and on social media, by people who really ought to know better.

Jason Baker comment

In fact, were Ben TeKamp and Bob Huskinson still alive today, one would be able to stand at the foot of Broad Street and hear their howls of outrage booming from the north end.

For the record, there was always some resistance and reluctance on city council about building the MDC, which would later morph into the Aquatarium.

But in the early days, under the leadership of then-Mayor TeKamp, the city was all in.

“Tonight you have a Gang of 10 and I'm the tenth vote to say yes,” Huskinson declared on Sept. 7, 2006, before a unanimous vote backing the zoning bylaw and official plan amendments allowing the Fuller project to go forward.

That vote (which I covered) was the culmination of a long period during which TeKamp and city officials were convinced the MDC was the long-sought answer to years, if not decades, of casting about looking for an “anchor attraction” that would be the centre of a tourism “campus,” a place that would turn Brockville into a destination rather than a 401 pit stop.

There were always cynical asides about the prospects of an MDC, and there were people who warned it would end up costing more than promised, but the real, Ontario-Municipal-Board-level resistance to the project had to do with the size of the proposed condo tower dominating the waterfront.

Here’s the narrative I remember:

City officials, although eager to see a derelict waterfront property developed, sensed the public resistance to a condo tower that exceeded city hall’s height restrictions. People would consider this an affront to their sacred waterfront.

Some of these elected officials might even have shared the unease at such a behemoth on the waterfront.

So, in exchange for waiving or easing those height restrictions, Fuller agreed to contribute to building the anchor tourism attraction the city always wanted, as long as the project could secure federal and provincial funding.

An MDC might not have been what every city councillor considered the right anchor attraction, but it was an opportunity they rightly concluded might not come again and they went for it.

This partnership, as we now know, proved to be fraught, and the project, as we now know, was beset with delays and overruns. Some councillors’ moods did sour on the whole thing.

I could also fill this space and twice as much again about arguments, over the years,about how much the city should contribute to the project. And Baker is right, strictly speaking, when he argues the intent was never to shovel the tax revenue from Tall Ships Landing into the MDC.

But to suggest the city accepted what is now the Aquatarium in order to get the condo tower tax revenue is a funhouse mirror image of the truth: Simon Fuller agreed to put money into the Aquatarium so the city could justify exceeding its own height restrictions.

I am not the only one who has observed that the Aquatarium is now well on its way to becoming a 2018 election issue.

This explains city council’s insistence on further scrutiny of the Aquatarium’s books, when those books are already being done by city officials and four of the nine Aquatarium steering committee members are council appointees.

If local politicians want to be seen to be vigilant, that is their prerogative. It might also yield welcome results.

But, unlike our neighbours to the south, can we all agree to fight this election on an accurate narrative, no matter what we feel about the otters today?

(UPDATE: Our current mayor, and Baker have since posted their recollections of how it unfolded, which essentially confirms the second narrative, minus some details that remain speculation on my part.)