Tag Archives: Parc Jean-Drapeau

Tourisme Montréal actively soliciting Ripley’s to build aquarium, believe it or not.

Ripley's Aquarium of Canada - photo credit to B+H Architects
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada – photo credit to B+H Architects

A La Presse exclusive reports Tourisme Montréal is actively pursuing the Jim Pattison Group to develop an aquarium here in Montreal. Pattison owns the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto, as well as Ripley’s Entertainment of Orlando.

As Réjean Bourdeau points out, it’s the second time in fifteen years that the Pattison Group has been approached to build an aquarium here in Montreal. The last attempt was made by the Société du Vieux-Port, which has been conducting surveys and public consultations of late on how to make the Old Port more inviting and interesting.

Then, as now, the Old Port is the likely location for such an attraction, given it’s an established tourism hub and is conveniently located near a body of water. That said, Tourisme Montréal president Yves Lalumière is open to other locations and other developers. As with many things in this city, it’s all very much still up in the air, and nothing as yet is concrete.

What is concrete is the existence of something I would argue is vastly superior to an aquarium. It’s called the Montreal Biodome, it draws about a million people a year and is a fantastic example of what a city can do with surplus Olympic infrastructure. The amazing story of the Biodome’s conception and development will be the subject of a forthcoming article for this website (stay tuned).

Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966
Alcan Aquarium promotional photo-montage, ca. 1966

That aside, the apparent interest in getting a private entertainment firm to build and operate an aquarium in the Old Port is at least in part related to the story of Montreal’s previous aquarium, a ‘Centennial Gift’ from the Alcan Corporation to the City of Montreal, and a component of Expo 67.

The original aquarium was located Ile Sainte-Helene, immediately adjacent to La Ronde. It featured two pavilions, one including the standard galleries of various marine species, and a second, essentially an amphitheater, where trained dolphins put on various demonstrations of their myriad talents. The latter building remains and is recognizable given its copper ‘circus tent’ roof. The pavilion has since been integrated into La Ronde for diverse non-aquarium related purposes.

I find it interesting that fifty years ago two completely different firms each decided it was prudent to gift the City of Montreal with public education facilities, as long as they got to keep the naming rights and the city took care of maintenance and operations. In the same year Alcan delivered an aquarium and Dow Breweries gifted us our first planetarium.

Everything was going along splendidly until a municipal workers’ strike in February 1980, at which point those responsible for feeding the dolphins were either prevented from doing their jobs or, in a fit of worker solidarity, decided not to cross the picket line. Some of the dolphins starved to death in their holding tanks. The aquarium had a hard time recovering after that. The remaining dolphins were sold to something called ‘Flipper’s Sea School’ (since renamed the Dolphin Research Centre) and the aquarium struggled throughout the 80s. The idea to redevelop the aquarium in the Old Port isn’t new either, as the city had a plan in the late 1980s to move it to a more ‘accessible’ location.

That plan fell through around the time of the economic recession of the early 1990s, and as it happened the city’s parks department was already busy developing the Biodome in the old Olympic Velodrome. The aquarium was closed in 1991 with some of its animals transferred to the Biodome which opened the following year in time for the city’s 350th anniversary.

And so we come full circle, renewed interest in developing an aquarium in the Old Port for yet another oddball anniversary.

I’d prefer not to lose more public space in the Old Port to obvious tourist fare, but it seems like the crown agency responsible for the Old Port is hell-bent on occupying every square inch of the place with a cornucopia of attractions that are, generally-speaking, too expensive for locals to bother with.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, in Toronto, seems successful enough. It has a prime location near the base of the CN Tower and charges thirty dollars a pop, and it’s hard not to be impressed with the walk-through aquariums and wide variety of species they have to offer. However, as Steve Kupferman notes in this 2013 article for Torontoist, the displays are hardly realistic, with little to no effort made to make the habitats look anything like the natural environment.

At the end of the day the Ripley’s Aquarium is infotainment; an attraction without any real substance. Not to say the original Alcan Aquarium was any more of a serious scientific endeavour what with performing dolphins being the centrepiece of the attraction.

And I guess that’s why I feel a bit uneasy about it. Despite the fact that it’s basically been done before, it seems like it wouldn’t fit, like it would impose itself and be fundamentally disconnected from the city it’s set in. An aquarium with an associated research institute and a public education and/or conservation mission would be a different matter, one I could get behind. But just because Toronto has an expensive tourist trap doesn’t mean should we copy them, ‘historic’ cooperation agreements aside.

We should note that the Toronto example, which opened in 2013 at a cost of $130 million, received $30 million in government funding in grants and tax breaks. If there’s sufficient interest in having an aquarium in this city, then either let Pattison assume the total cost of the project, or build a public aquarium using public funds to serve a public good.

Just as long as there’s a clause stipulating the aquarium’s staff still have to feed the animals, even if they’re on strike. This is Montreal, after all. The application of common sense should never be taken for granted.

An Ocean Liner to Boost Casino Revenue

Really wish I had taken this - props to whoever did. The Casino, previously the Québec and French pavilions of Expo 67.
Really wish I had taken this Рprops to whoever did. The Casino, previously the Qu̩bec and French pavilions of Expo 67.

So Loto-Québec is planning on introducing drinking on the floors of the province’s four casinos, as part of a broader effort to update and modernize the casinos to increase revenue and draw higher attendance. Currently both are down, prompting the péquiste health minister (?) to state “it’s time we got our heads out of the sand and ensures our casinos can be competitive.” As it stands, Québec’s casinos are the only casinos in North America where the consumption of alcohol is not permitted on the gaming floor.

The plan is that, by getting on board with open drinking on the gaming floor, many more people will visit and revenues will increase. Gérard Bibeau, the head of Loto-Québec believes nearly $100 million in lost revenue could be generated (though it seems he’s basing this calculation on the idea that attendance is down specifically because drinking isn’t permitted. I would hope attendance is down because a sufficient number of people would rather save their hard earned money rather than risk it). Bibeau suggests that the $100 million figure represents what could have been pulled in by the casinos if not for a 4% drop in attendance over the past few years.

Hmmm. What’s been happening that might convince people to stay away from casinos for the past four or five years…?

Loto-Québec’s prohibition of drinking while gambling on the casino floor is certainly particular, especially when you consider that it’s not a prohibition on drinking and gambling in the wider sense. Anyone can drink and gamble themselves into oblivion at video lottery terminals (VLTs) located in every dive bar in the province – and plenty have (though officially the bartender is supposed to discourage this, if I’m not mistaken). And from my experience working in dépanneurs I can tell you drinking and gambling certainly go together, though it has never been my experience that these activities ever did anyone any good.

But I digress.

Many moons ago it was a lovely Tuesday night in the suburbs and my buddies and I were bored. We were young, temporarily unimaginative yet also cognizant that we couldn’t quite figure out what to do with ourselves. So we piled into a car and took off for the Casino de Montréal. It was my first and last time there and I broke even, winning and then losing $100.

The first thing I really took notice of was a geriatric sitting in a pink jumpsuit, slumped ever so slightly over on one side, an oxygen tank leaning against her high chair. She had a neon yellow elastic chord attached from her jumpsuit pocket to a debit card locked into a one-armed bandit, pressing the button as though in a trance.

These are not the people we want in our casinos (admittedly I’m making a jugement call here, but she did not appear to be a high-roller; she looked like a senior citizen gambling away her pension cheque). Adding drink to the mix will make this problem worse. We want other people’s money – tourist money.

When the Casino de Montréal opened in 1993 it was a bit of a big deal. It’s a surprisingly large casino by Canadian standards, featuring over a hundred gaming tables and 3,200 gaming machines, not to mention the bars and restaurants (three and four respectively) as well as the cabaret and assorted meeting and banquet facilities. As intended, it’s open all day every day of the year and is located far from the city, isolated from the pedestrian and public transit pace of the downtown core on Ile-Notre-Dame. It came to be a year after the city’s 350th anniversary as part of a series of civic improvement projects instituted by Mayor Doré. In this particular case, it allowed for two iconic Expo pavilions to be preserved and rendered permanent. As such, it is peculiar for a casino, as it features low ceilings, natural sunlight and openly encourages its patrons to step away from the tables to smoke, drink and socialize.

When it opened, it was supposed to be classy. The restaurants were top-notch, the chefs and wine selection unbeatable. There was even a dress code – jackets and ties for men, no hats, no jeans etc.

I think this is something we should maintain. Everything about our casino, as initially intended, was almost designed to de-emphasize the gambling. It’s not a big gray box. It doesn’t disorient the patrons by omitting windows. It invites patrons to step away from the gaming, to go outside and get some fresh air. These are design elements we should continue to value.

There’s no doubt our casino and state-regulated gambling is useful – it funnels money from the people’s pocket back into the government purse. Loto-Québec is a provincial crown corporation whose mandate is ‘to operate games of chance in the province in an orderly and measured way’ and I would argue strongly they do a generally good job, even though I’m morally opposed to the practice in the first place.

I suppose it’s not so bad if it’s rich people who’re losing their money – they can afford it.

But all too often casinos wind up preying, even if indirectly, on the poorest elements of society – they people most desperate for a financial break are all too often those with bad finances and who exercise poor jugement with their money. And whereas there once were controls – like the dress code and limitations on drinking on the playing floor – these have been shelved to accomodate the poor yet regular patrons who provide the bulk of the casino’s revenue during a prolonged period of economic instability, such as we’re experiencing right now.

But my question is this. Is this really the best way to increase revenue? How much extra coin could this actually produce?

And why look to locals as our main source of casino revenue?

And why isn’t Montreal’s casino generating money specifically for our own needs? The city could use revenue generated by the Casino de Montréal more immediately and doubtless more efficiently. As an example, with new legislation, the Casino de Montréal’s revenue could be re-directed towards costly and necessary infrastructure improvements to local schools (you’ll no doubt recall many local schools have severe mould and asbestos problems). Or to provide scholarships and bursaries for post-secondary education. Or to help defray the massive cost overruns of the new hospitals. or to improve public transit. The list goes on. As it stands today this money is sent to Québec City, where I suppose it’s moved back into general revenue.

This doesn’t help us much at all, yet Montréal is on the hook for nearly every negative repercussion from casino operations in the city – everything from the social problems associated with gambling addiction in our poorest neighbourhoods to the inevitable suicides and road accidents that happen on the otherwise deserted junction of Ave. Pierre-Dupuy and the Pont de la Concorde.

So let’s do something different.

The city ought to take in a greater share of our casino’s revenue, but we can’t argue this position unless we’re willing to provide our own plan to increase attendance and revenue. Thus, I would argue strongly that the city should look to acquire the single greatest missing piece from our casino’s master plan – a hotel – and assist in redeveloping the Casino de Montréal with a new hotel & resort component. This in turn could be part of a larger plan to increase the use and revenue generated by all the diverse functions of parc Jean-Drapeau.

But where would we build a hotel? Ile-Notre-Dame doesn’t have much space to support a large hotel, and construction may render the island temporarily unusable.

Permanently mooring a cruise ship or ocean liner within proximity of the casino presents us with an interesting possibility to get everything we need for a major casino expansion without having to build much. It would allow us to rather suddenly put a lot of hotel space more or less in the centre of the city’s park islands. Rather than building new we simply tow a full expansion into position. It would look good, it would be exceptionally unique and would further serve to provide a lot of direct financial stimulus for our otherwise underused (and at times worn-down) parc Jean-Drapeau.

Inter-island Channel, Parc Jean-Drapeau
Inter-island Channel, Parc Jean-Drapeau

And wouldn’t you know it, we could park a cruise ship or old ocean liner right here between the inter-island bridges. One would fit perfectly (though we might have to dredge the channel and temporarily remove one of the bridges) and I think in a broader sense fulfill a grander scheme for the park islands. I’ve often felt that this grand playground lacks any unifying cohesiveness – it’s simply the space we put all the stuff we can’t place elsewhere. We’ve purposely concentrated a lot of diverse entertainment in one space and have done well in maintaining that space’s utility within the public conception of the urban environment. Yet it’s still very detached, isolated even, from the rest of the city.

I feel a floating hotel solves more than one problem, using the location’s relative isolation to its advantage. For locals and people from the region, it could provide a much-needed ‘urban resort’, a place to get away from it all that’s oddly located in the middle of everything. For foreign tourists or families on vacation, it provides a hotel in a controlled environment almost exclusively dedicated to family friendly activities. Re-instituting the dress code and prohibiting drinking from the gaming floor in this newly expanded casino could serve to help sell the image of a classy and unique vacation experience catering to a wide variety of tastes.

Think about it – Parc Jean-Drapeau is a large multi-use park with a considerable natural component, occupying roughly the same amount of space as Mount Royal Park (2.1 square kilometers). It features, among others, a beach, an aquatics centre & rowing basin, manicured parks and trails, an amusement park, a historic fort and a premier outdoor concert venue. Placing a hotel in the middle of it, associated with the aforementioned casino, would surely drive up revenue not only for the casino but everything else going on at the park as well. It could conceivably make the park more useful during the winter months and provide sufficient new revenue so as to redevelop the Biosphere, Helene-de-Champlain restaurant and give the whole place a facelift too. And I don’t think it would take much of anything away from the city’s existing hotels as, from my experience, parc Jean-Drapeau is nearly exclusively used by locals, being perhaps a little too detached for tourists.

SS United States by Wikipedia contributor Lowlova
SS United States by Wikipedia contributor Lowlova

For your consideration, this rather handsome looking (and famous) ocean liner, the SS United States, can accomodate 5,000 people and is in desperate need of a buyer to keep her from the breakers. The idea of permanently mooring an ocean liner somewhere in the Old Port isn’t entirely new either. Aside form the fact that it’s already been done elsewhere, our own Mayor Drapeau wanted to use an ocean liner to house Olympic athletes during the `76 Games, with the idea being that the ship would be converted into a floating hotel, casino and convention centre afterwards as part of a broad facelift for the Old Port. His preferred vessel was the SS Normandie.

Definitely worth reconsidering, in my humble option.

If you happen to be looking to buy a cruise ship, look no further.