Whether or not 2020 actually is the start of a new decade remains a topic of some debate.
Twenty years ago, I was on the side of the mathematicians in arguing that, despite all the fanfare about the “New Millennium,” that millennium actually was to start on Jan. 1, 2001.
My thoughts were similar about out current calendar year, which prompted me to stay away from the media’s popular tendency to designate a “Story of the Decade.”
Sometimes, however, these things are arbitrary. Consider these comments from the website timeanddate.com, where the writer notes that, while we “usually think about centuries and millennia as numbered entities, counted up from year AD 1, such as ‘the 21st century’ or ‘the third millennium,'” decades “are commonly categorized based on the year numbers.”
It’s a case of semantics over mathematics: In popular culture, we think of a new decade as beginning with a zero, not a one. Psychological states are arbitrary and not bound by the laws of mathematics, but psychology, not mathematics, is what powers civic discussion.
Which was enough to change my mind on the whole “Story of the Decade” thing.
I may be arbitrary myself, but my choice for Brockville’s Story of the Decade is a complex one encompassing three different developments, all pointing to a single story: In the 2010s, Brockville got to think of itself as a bigger player in the tourism game.
It started in June 2013 with the city’s first Tall Ships Festival. For the first time in recent memory, the city had an event that jammed the downtown with people and traffic. The ships were definitely inspiring, but so was the sight of those crowds, especially to a community that had, two years earlier, witnessed the quiet demise of the once-great Riverfest.
Standing in the middle of it, on the decks of all those ships with my cameras in hand, I realized this was the beginning of Brockville regaining confidence in itself.
Three years later came the long-delayed opening of the Aquatarium and the tall ships’ return. For the latter, it was the same story: Majestic ships and eager crowds.
For the former, well, it’s complicated.
The Aquatarium had its detractors for years before its opening, due to delays and cost overruns, and it has had detractors since – because, mostly, of cost overruns.
But what some now call “the AQ” has also given the city a tourism attraction on a higher order of magnitude, one on which the city can still capitalize once the finance and administration picture finally solidifies.
According to Mayor Jason Baker, that is already happening.
The year after the Aquatarium’s opening, we witnessed another moment in the city’s tourism evolution: The opening of the restored Brockville Railway Tunnel.
I could do a whole column on the factors that led to a single social media moment: A cheeky Instagram post by the hilariously ultralocal account @only_in_brockville, which used the well-known “distracted boyfriend meme” to suggest “Brockville tourists” had been lured away from the AQ to the tunnel.
While the tunnel is certainly worth the buzz, and tourists from around the world appear to agree, it was not without its own financial controversy.
In 2018, it was discovered that the tunnel restoration project resulted in a shortfall of $2,046,771, a massive failure of financial control that led city council to put new mechanisms in place for monitoring such matters.
But the tunnel has mostly remained a happy story, with a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor in 2018 (the Aquatarium got one as well) and new and popular uses for the attraction such as the Tunnel of Terror around Halloween.
Perhaps more significantly, Rob Thompson, upon opening his new specialty hotel on King Street in November, listed the tunnel as being at least of equal significance to the downtown economy as the Tall Ships Landing condo tower.
That combination, said Thompson, “ignited a spark that is the renaissance that is downtown Brockville.”
Just like semantics sometimes overrides mathematics, the proximity of recent events can blind us to historical perspective. And so, for now at least, many will view the tunnel and the Aquatarium in light of their more recent controversies.
But a bit of historical distance from the just-ended decade (at least semantically) will likely reveal that, when taken together with the Tall Ships Festivals returning every three years, these two new attractions took the city to a higher level and allowed us to change the narrative to something more positive.
City hall reporter Ronald Zajac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org