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Park board’s aquarium action guts key city tourist attraction

Question: How do you create a medium-sized tourist attraction in Vancouver? Answer: You take a large tourist attraction and put it in the hands of the city’s park board.

Question: How do you create a medium-sized tourist attraction in Vancouver?

Answer: You take a large tourist attraction and put it in the hands of the city’s park board.

While we were awaiting word last week on the economic destiny of our province – that is, the legislature’s composition and the governing party’s identity – Vancouver took a blunt instrument and whacked its most significant tourism draw.

The aquarium’s social and scientific contributions are priceless, but its economic engine is quite quantifiable: $43 million in direct and indirect output, more than 400 employees, $59 million in benefits from visitors to Vancouver and nearly $10 million to governments in tax revenue, including $1 million in direct net revenue to the city that has now bitten the hand that feeds it.

In amending a bylaw to bar cetaceans from its properties – save those three grandfathered – the park board also defiled an understanding that had guided aquarium fundraising midway in a $100 million capital campaign.

The science on the impact of captivity is mixed. But it is hard to square the noble concept of animal protection with a measure that now consigns five belugas on loan elsewhere to lesser conditions in other facilities. It is harder still to fathom the elimination of a marine rescue program.

As we say cynically in journalism, though, let’s not let these facts get in the way of a good story, and the good story that activists wish us to think is that we have long needed to cleanse the disgrace of our abuse to reach a virtuous moment – and to do it now.

If only life were that simple.

Principles are only so when fulfilled by good process, and in pursuing the principle the park board did not adequately consult the unsqueaky wheels – including the aquarium CEO – and delivered a hasty, ideologically driven decision rather than a conciliatory timetable for change to mitigate risk to the institution. In other words, it borrowed from Vision Vancouver’s administrative playbook.

Only it did so without Vision. The mayor had expressed personal support for the ban. But in this case, the lone Vision commissioner was joined by the two predictable Green Party and three about-turn Non-Partisan Association reps. An independent commissioner dissented.

A mixture of capitulation to identity politics, pique and wet fingers held aloft to determine the wind’s direction guided a park board that wittingly or not subjected taxpayers to what we can expect to be a costly legal challenge.

The incongruence of our civic politics is stark: spending more time on climate change than on shovelling snow, choosing a path for bikes over one to the hospital emergency department, taxing heavily and blaming others for unaffordability and thinking we were settled here for anything other than to be the most strategically significant port in the country.

This political conceit and attack on the aquarium and its science is little better than Donald Trump’s arrogance on climate change, and it begs the question on whether we are at endtimes on rational, evidence-based decision-making in our politics.

In thinking about the planet, too, it can forget what’s under its nose. To wit: when polls ask Vancouverites about whether cetaceans should be at the aquarium, it is a relatively even result; take the poll within an hour’s range and people support the aquarium. This should signal to the city that the aquarium serves as an obligation to our region culturally and to the wider world scientifically.

No cultural centre operates like the aquarium in Canada, without a nickel from the government purse.

It is a facility truism that people come to see the whales and leave with an appreciation of marine diversity. Worrisome is how many will not come with the empty tanks. Problematic is how you call yourself a world-ranking aquarium without a significant element of the ocean on the premises. The rub here is that a solution was at hand: sunset the cetaceans in the next decade, maintain the unique rescue program, wisely work through the adjustment.

But no, let’s stick it suddenly to the place, let’s go back on our word, let’s see if they feel the pain we know they inflict on the captive creatures. For this, I suspect we will next have what is coming to us. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.