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A Marco Polo idea with wind in its sails

   The compelling story of the Marco Polo has been told in two novels, a National Film Board documentary, commemorative stamps issued by both Canada and Australia, a high school musical and a suite of songs, to name a few.

    The story has not been told by a replica of what was once the world's fastest ship. That's because in 12 years of planning a new Marco Polo, Barry Ogden and the volunteer Marco Polo Group Inc. have come up with proposals that were appealing and affordable, but never both.

    Until now, that is.

    The group now wants to build a full-scale, nonsailing replica of the tall ship, and place it on or very near the water on the waterfront, where its masts would rise higher than the Saint John Hilton. The ship could be lit up at night and become, as Mr. Ogden says, "an icon for Saint John. "

    Although we've always admired the vision and tenacity that has driven Mr. Ogden and his supporters, we have - like more than one level of government - choked on the cost.

    The full-size sailing replica that had long been envisioned would have cost an estimated $21 million. The promoters were hoping for $9 million from the federal and provincial governments, $2 million from the city and another $10 million from the private sector.

    Given that $21 million is twice what it cost to restore the Imperial Theatre and nearly as much as the cost of building Harbour Station, many people thought that request too steep. Late in 1994, they were proven right. The three levels of government said they couldn't find the money. Then-MP Paul Zed was even more blunt. Rather than blame the denial on tight budgets alone, he said he doubted its long-term financial viability. It's not just building a sea-going tall ship that's pricy; it's keeping them afloat.

    Rather than give up, the Marco Polo Group went back to the drawing board. In 1998, they were working on a half-scale sailing version. At 125 feet long, it would have been half the length of the 19th-century Marco Polo, but given its plump shape, it would still have been twice as massive as Nova Scotia's famous Bluenose II. Compared to the original proposal, the idea was more affordable, at an estimated $7-million. But it would have lost some of the realism and majesty that only a full-scale replica could provide.

   The new full-scale version becomes even more affordable. That's primarily because it would be non- sailing, like a surprising number of the tall ship attractions around the world. (The HMS Bounty replica costs $25,000 a week to sail, and often loses money on trips.) It wouldn't need to be outfitted like a ship that sails, and it wouldn't need a highly-trained crew or the same annual maintenance. It could sit on or next to the water, looking just like it's about to take immigrants to Australia, but for a fraction of the price of a ship that's actually capable of doing that. Mr. Ogden estimates the pricetag at $1.8-million.

    This is a realistic proposal that deserves more of the unswerving and enthusiastic local support that various other Marco Polo ventures have generated.

    This is no more money than what Ottawa routinely squanders on frivolous things or the province loses when a company it's helping to bankroll fails. For a small investment, most of which could come from the federally-funded Millennium. Partnership Program, this city could boast a viable tourism attraction that would celebrate the province's unparalleled shipbuilding past, help position the city year-round as a tourism destination where there are unique things to do, and exploit the unrealized potential of our waterfront..

    Getting approval for the millennium funding will not be the last hurdle this project will face. Like previous proposals, it needs a detailed business plan. It needs the co-operation of the Saint John Port Authority and City Hall to find a suitable site. It will probably need other commitments, too, from the provincial and local' governments.

    When they're approached, all these decisionmakers should be open to the exciting possibilities of this latest proposal, which looks like it may not be destined to founder over funding.

The article was taken from the Times Globe Newspaper, Friday, May 28/99

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