Saturday, January 9, 2010



The backers of all the aquarium plans for Toronto over the decades have told more fibs than most fishermen. We have a right to be skeptical about new proposals, even though this one for the base of the CN Tower looks like it has been safely landed.
Believe it or not!
There have been tantalizing schemes before, but also strange locations. Can you remember them - on Bay south of Dundas beside the Eaton Centre and in the basement of CBC headquarters are just two examples.
But then, I admire a great aquarium in New Zealand, Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World, which was built in 1985 in only 10 months in and around the tanks of an old sewage treatment plant. It pioneered the clear plastic tunnel where you ride a moving sidewalk and gaze out at all the wonders of the deep, some of which, like sharks, are released regularly back to the sea.
We have had logical locations in Toronto, like several on the waterfront stretching from Yonge past Exhibition Place. And there was one for the lakeshore of the western suburb of Etobicoke, and for all I know, southern North York and the bluffs of Scarborough too.
It reminds me of all the stories before we finally got a domed stadium. It seemed there was a new one every six months.
I've been paying attention because I love aquariums. I've visited them everywhere, from that inventive one in Auckland to the giant Shedd in Chicago to a new one in Taiwan that was packed with Chinese from the mainland even though it was technically forbidden to visit.
It's not always easy. Mary and I set off for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach because the California complex had a tank of the most bizarre sea horses you've ever seen. The experts hadn't been sure they existed.
It was the first day of the Long Beach Grand Prix, right next door to the aquarium. I blundered on to the track just before the cars practiced. Pit crews were screaming at me and I was screaming back at them about how I could get off to the aquarium. It took 40 minutes to zig zag to the expensive aquarium garage.
I often wrote columns about how I wished we had had an aquarium before the new zoo. After all, the zoo's teething problems were amazing. The moat around the lions wasn't wide enough if the lion was mad. The inventive platform for the camels kept the camels enclosed without a barrier but kids could step up to wander around the animals. The glass bead curtains kept the birds in, and seemed a great screen, until the birds landed and walked underneath to freedom. And then the boss left and was convicted later of having sex with animals and taking kickbacks on animal purchases.
By comparison, an aquarium seemed shiny clean and less money, the very thing a major city should have if it was located on a great lake in a province where fish were important. So I columnized and pushed and shoved.
Maybe 15 years ago, my friend Jeff Lyons, now the disgraced lobbyist and lawyer, came calling with a group including Jim Pattison Jr. and asked if I would be on the board if the Pattison Group, the third largest private company in Canada which owns Ripley's Believe It Or Not, built a Toronto aquarium.
A great idea, because the boss of it all, Jim Pattison, is respected and was building, two aquariums in the southern states, and had plans for a water park in Niagara Falls. But I said as Editor of the Toronto Sun, I couldn't be a director of a private project like this that would be so intertwined with politics. But I wished them well.
In the early 1990s, Walter Oster, who runs the Great Ontario Salmon Derby and heads the convention centre and sportsmen's show, led a group that wanted an aquarium. He had built and sold a hotel on the waterfront and still owns a wonderful sea food restaurant there, Pier Four Storehouse.
The group persuaded Etobicoke council to give it $500,000 to study an aquarium on the Etobicoke lakeshore in a Metro park. A few councillors like Doug Holyday were furious because the suburb didn't own the land, and Holyday grew even more irate when the group accomplished nothing, not even a useful report.
Since then it seems not a year has gone by without talk of an aquarium in Exhibition Place. Politicians like Joe Pantalone and Gloria Lindsay-Luby, and officials like general manager Dianne Young, were regular visitors, at our expense, to the southern U.S. and those Ripley's aquariums.
The Ex issued RFPs but found that not only did they not get any good proposals, there were arguments that it wouldn't be cheaper to build right on the lake. I'm still surprised about that.
I had a ringside seat on some of this as a long-time Canadian National Exhibition director, including CNE president and Exhibition Place board vice-chair. Because of that, I was approached once with a staggering proposal, supposedly from Chinese interests, to spend around a billion dollars on a casino and aquarium at the Ex. The mystery people said they were unable to get an appointment with anyone in power, including the mayor and premier. I provided phone numbers and advice and offered to do more but they faded into oblivion. It really did seem to be in the believe-it-or-not category, and I didn't believe.
As a fervent supporter of the Ex, I lament that it won't get this great attraction, but building is a lot simpler downtown when you can avoid the politics of the Ex and City Hall. If you don't believe me, consider that what I still call SkyDome was shoehorned beside the railway tracks because the two most important politicians around then, Bill Davis and Paul Godfrey, didn't trust Toronto council.
The latest example of how City Hall screws the Ex came when council passed a bylaw forbidding guns on city property. It was aimed at handguns, but obviously prevented long guns, which aren't the problem, from being shown at the sportsmen's show located at the Ex. So city taxpayers lost the million-dollar profit as the show moved to the provincially owned convention centre.
I can't wait to ride the moving sidewalk and look up at the rays and all the other attractions of the deep. It will be a lot simpler, and probably clearer, than all the countless snorkel and SCUBA dives I've been on. And being under the water is a lot pleasanter than being on top.

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