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Aquarium Makes Good on Free Passes for Low-income Visitors

Offer extended yearly to 26,000 Vancouverites who can't pay top dollar to see the dolphins.

By David P. Ball 12 Jun 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @davidpball, or email him here.

With the Vancouver Aquarium hosting a grand opening for its expanded facility on Friday, The Tyee has learned it plans to finally fulfill a longstanding promise to low-income residents in the city.

Starting this fall, the aquarium says it will offer 26,000 free passes a year to Vancouverites who can't afford its steep entry price.

More than five years ago, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation voted to require the free passes in its list of "mitigation and compensation measures" for approving a major aquarium expansion in city-run Stanley Park.

The motion, put forward by then-commissioner Spencer Chandra Herbert, required that the aquarium agree to supply 1,000 individual passes at no cost to each Vancouver Park Board community centre on an annual basis, to be administered by park board staff.

With the aquarium's current rates set at $29 per adult, $20 for teens and $15 for children under 13, prices are out-of-reach for many Vancouverites, and during the busy summer tourist season rise by $5, starting June 21, an aquarium spokesperson said.

"I've heard from a lot of families who say they can't afford the aquarium," said Chandra Herbert, now MLA for the West End which is adjacent to Stanley Park. He said the passes took a longer time than he’d hoped to materialize, but that they would fulfill his eight-year-old motion and are a positive move.

"We committed to this in 2006 and we will honour that commitment," the aquarium's chief financial officer Cathy Imrie said. "The intent always had been that this would come into effect once we completed our expansion."

Imrie said she anticipates the passes will become available starting in the fall, and that the park board will administer them to ensure they "get into the hands of appropriate individuals, and that it's fraud-proof."

Passes only valid outside of summer

Current park board commissioner Niki Sharma, who recently announced her candidacy for Vision Vancouver's city council slate in the November civic elections, said that city staff "continue to communicate" with the aquarium about delivering the promised passes.

"The aquarium previously said that it would coincide with their expansion," she explained. "Affordability is always an issue in the city. We're happy if our partners can offer discounted or free passes to people who can't otherwise go."

The aquarium's one caveat, however, is that the passes can only be used outside the busy summer tourist season, when prices climb and the facility is awash in visitors from out of town.

"These are for distribution for citizens of Vancouver who have the ability to come the other nine months of the year [that] they live in city," Imrie said.

In the nearly seven-and-a-half years since the park board asked for the passes, the aquarium has participated in two programs that offer low-income residents a chance to visit city attractions, almost all of them receiving some level of funding or subsidies from taxpayers.

For instance, it offers a 50 per cent discount to residents who are approved for the Leisure Access Program, which "allows Vancouver residents who are in financial need to access basic recreation programs at Park Board facilities at reduced cost," the city's website states.

To qualify for the program, residents must prove their income level is below a certain level and that they live here permanently. For a two-person family, the threshold is under $29,440 before tax; for four, it's $43,942.

Imrie also pointed to the aquarium's enrolment in the Vancouver Public Library's Vancouver Inspiration pass. Under that program, library cardholders 14 years and older can "sign out" one of 120 passes granting access to programs and attractions for two weeks.

But the high demand for the free passes have led to mushrooming wait-lists of "a little less than three years" to get one, admits a library source, who asked not to be named.

There are currently 9,071 "holds" on Inspiration passes. The highest number of holds, 1,155, are at the central branch, which has 20 passes available. The Joe Fortes branch, the outlet closest to the aquarium, has 427 holds on its five passes, with one extra pass coming this summer.  [Tyee]

Read more: Municipal Politics

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