The final meeting of the day, the meeting of the Community Services Committee (CSC), was also concluded in almost record time, finishing in about an hour. The agenda was relatively light, with only one delegation and few items for debate or direction. That was good news for the dozen or so visitors in the public gallery who had come to view the proceedings. They got to witness the debate and the committee recommendations that followed and still have a couple of hours at home before bedtime. The media managed to file their stories in reasonable time.
A few of those in the gallery had come to check out the response of the committee to the new proposal for municipal golf. Despite an earlier recommendation by staff not to pursue an arrangement whereby “resellers” could sell golf packages giving non-members access to city golf courses, council had directed staff to come back with an arrangement that would reduce the risk inherent in such an arrangement. This it had done. Most members of the committee seemed reassured by the new deal limiting access to soft times so that London municipal golf course members are not inconvenienced.
In response to a question by committee chair Matt Brown, Parks and Recreation Director Bill Coxhead confirmed that the risk had been reduced, but not eliminated. He recommended that any additional monies to be realized by the deal be put into the capital reserves for life cycle renewal and improvements. It’s not money you can bank on for the long term. Still, it was enough to re-assure most of the committee members, leaving Councillor Harold Usher the only hold-out. A few people left the gallery when the vote had been taken.
Then came the issue that had been claiming London Free Press headlines and occupying radio newstalk shows, the transfer of the “wild” animals from Storybook Gardens to improved accommodations.
Two councillors, Bud Polhill and Dale Henderson, had taken an early stance against the relocation of the animals, particularly the harbour seals. Henderson had not been around when the decision to move in this direction had been made in December of 2008, and Polhill seems to have forgotten.
There’s a danger in taking an early public position on an issue before you have all of the background information and facts. You tend to get locked in. It’s hard to acknowledge that you may have gotten it wrong. You tend to become defensive. Staff had prepared an extensive report on both the background to the proposal and the nature of the opportunity itself, but it is doubtful that either opponent of the plan had read it.
The first speakers on the issue—Councillors Nancy Branscombe, Bill Armstrong and Harold Usher—indicated strong support for the proposal, noting that it was a win-win for the animals and the city. The animals would get a better quality of life and the city would not incur any costs in the process. That would provide an opportunity to redevelop the vacated sites with new attractions more suited to the times and people’s sensibilities. All were appreciative of Zoocheck’s generous offer to pay for the relocation, an acknowledgement not lost on the representative of Zoocheck who was sitting in the gallery with members of the London animal welfare community.
Less appreciative was Bud Polhill who, although not on the committee, was in attendance to add his observations. He had been quite vocal on this issue in the media, but he acknowledged that although he considered himself to be an animal rights person, a lot of people had not agreed with him. He also disputed that this direction was in line with what the council, of which he had been a part, voted for back in 2008. “This was one of the options,” he complained. He agreed that in terms of the accommodations for the animals “what we have out there is not adequate” but he wanted to know what it would cost to bring it up to snuff. And what would be put in its place?
Had he read the report, he would have known that staff had not undertaken a detailed assessment, but had noted that a simple otter enclosure in Peterborough had cost $750,000. To upgrade the pool for the harbour seals would cost millions; it has remained pretty much as it was in 1958, a pool not much larger than a backyard swimming pool.
As to what the direction was in 2008, Executive Director of Community Services Ross Fair was very clear that this direction, started in 2003, was the one endorsed in 2008 by the council of the day of which Polhill was a member. “I was clear at the time and remain clear at this time,” Fair stated, pointing out that the site for the seals was canvassed at that time and that upgrading was considered to be cost prohibitive. The site for which the seals are destined will cost more than $18M. As to what’s next, Fair suggested that alterations would focus on the new strategic themes, particularly the stories, and be more interactive and dynamic.
In 2008, council was worried about the bottom line. Since adoption of the new direction, attendance has increased significantly and the bottom line has improved. While the responses to public surveys suggest that the animals are a major attraction, actual time spent at the enclosures is very limited; the activity centres are what kids really like.
Nevertheless, Councillor Dale Henderson thought he had a better idea. Despite staff reports to the contrary, he remained convinced that Storybook Gardens is a major tourist attraction and that without the seals, ”Storybook Gardens is dead.” He wanted to know what would be put in its place, what about renting it out to the private sector, had anyone come forward will to take it over.
In fact, the bottom line of Storybook Gardens has improved largely because many of the activities that were previously been contracted out have been brought in house where the proceeds can be reinvested as well as used to reduce the red ink of the past. And when staff was consulting with the public for its input, no private sector investor had expressed an interest in taking this on. Certainly, the local experience of private zoos has not been one to suggest that it would lead to “better quality of life” as Henderson had indicated he wanted.
But Henderson urged that management recruit from the private sector “someone that knows [the busines] and can run this place,” a slap in the face of the very workers who were doing their best to do right by the animals and be cognizant of the bottom line, and who were in the room presenting the report.
Henderson has great faith in the power and efficacy of the private sector, despite the fact that only a few months ago he was entreating his colleagues on council to have the city help reduce his losses from his failing entertainment business in which he had invested more than a million dollars. In politics, memories can be short.
In the end, committee chair Brown summed it up well. Although he had many positive memories, he recognized that times had changed and Storybook had been presented with “a phenomenal opportunity” by Zoocheck and Friends of Captive Animals to improve the lives of the few remaining inhabitants. What was needed was an opportunity for the community to have a farewell party and say good-bye. That will happen in the spring.
It was time, in the words of Nancy Branscombe, to seal the deal. All on the committee agreed, save Henderson.
Afterwards, I spoke with a few of the dozen or so members of the animal welfare/rights community who had witnessed the debate from the gallery. They had a myriad of ideas about what to do with the pool when the seals have gone. Especially interesting were: paddle boats in the form of seals, one of which could be called slippery; a theme of “The Little Mermaid” (and Mermen) who could do storytelling; an Eco Park, a space for a Wildlife Rehabilitator; a dunk tank for councillors.
I invite you to share your ideas; I know that the Storybook staff will be happy to receive them.