Jurassic Parc Jean-Drapeau: The story of the Dinasaurium con

How three levels of government were duped into green-lighting (and nearly funding) a quasi-museum in an old Expo 67 pavilion where the majesty of prehistoric beasts would come alive via the magic of modern animatronics.

For reasons I will never understand, it seems like everyone went a little nuts for dinosaurs back in the early 1990s. Elder Millennials and Gen-Xers will know what I’m talking about — there was a weird moment of ‘dinomania’ right around the time the Cold War ended (doubtless the two events are intimately related).

Saturday morning cartoons with dinosaur themes abounded — remember Cadillacs and Dinosaurs? Dino-Riders? — basically for no other purpose than to sell some pretty bitching action figures. There was even a band named Dinosaur Jr. (whose action figures were rather underwhelming). The Land Before Time was my generation’s Bambi. And when all of that wasn’t enough, ABC ran a live-action sitcom I can only describe as ‘the Simpsons if they were dinosaurs.’

This is the background context for what was almost the greatest con job ever pulled on the city of Montreal.

Some context first. 

Many North American cities were in rough shape back in the ’80s and ’90s, and Montreal was no exception. Decades of suburbanization had depleted the urban tax bases of major cities, and concurrent deindustrialization had the effect of weakening municipal economies, impoverishing working class neighbourhoods and turning industrial areas into ghost towns. Having an urban core that emptied out after 5 p.m. most days led to a wide variety of initiatives to revitalize the city. The Biodôme, the Casino, Pointe-à-Callière and the Canadian Centre for Architecture are among the more successful examples of the projects aimed at bringing people back to the city after years of depopulation and disinvestment.

It was around this time that the City of Montreal was trying to figure out what to do with two of the last remaining pavilions from Expo 67, those of Canada and Quebec. 

Given the political climate of the time, it wasn’t expedient to tear either down, even though this is exactly what happened to most of the other pavilions. The city had already decided that the old French pavilion would be turned into a casino with the help of Loto-Québec, but the adjacent Quebec pavilion wasn’t originally intended to become part of the casino complex. There was considerable incentive to repurpose the old pavilions as public attractions. 

Enter into the picture Barry Sendel, an enterprising 40-something who claims a PhD in mathematics from Concordia, but who spent much of the 1970s running a series of successful singles mixers in Toronto. Sendel finagled face time with mayor Jean ‘Golden Boy’ Doré and pitched him on the Dinasaurium, a place where the majesty of prehistoric beasts would come alive via the magic of modern animatronics!

The Gazette’s editorial board lamented the evident lack of educational content in the proposed Dinasaurium — as evidenced by the fact that in both English and French, the word dinosaur is spelled D-I-N-O, not D-I-N-A, and neither Sendel nor the City of Montreal could explain why a purportedly educational dinosaur museum couldn’t even get the spelling of its name right. 

The Gazette further pointed out that animatronic dinosaurs may have a short shelf life in terms of the wow factor, and that it was hard to imagine such an attraction consistently pulling in the high attendance figures promised by Sendel and seemingly believed by the city. Moreover, at a time in which many other North American cities were building state of the art science centres with interactive exhibits designed specifically to get kids fired up about science and technology, allocating public funds towards passive infotainment — essentially a place to park the kids while parents gambled away their college savings at the casino next door — seemed like an inexcusable waste.

Despite all this, the city and Sendel pressed on. It would be ready in 1993.

And then it wasn’t. Sendel overpromised and underdelivered, blowing past countless deadlines, all without getting so much as a palm tree or a brontosaurus into position. It was initially estimated to cost $10-million in 1992 (about $18.8-million today), to be drawn entirely from private investment. Then the costs started adding up, and then Sendel started talking about how it was conditional on government investment. 

The initial plan called for an IMAX theatre and was going to involve actual paleontologists and experts brought in from natural history museums across the country. Plans also called for a setting worthy of a Hollywood movie, perhaps to set the stage (pun most definitely intended) for future film shoots.

“Shooting a Dino-flick eh? Well you know what they say — Montreal has that on stand-by for some strange reason.”

By October of 1993, nothing had happened other than the filing of three separate lawsuits against Sendel’s company for about $13,000. Sendel was on the verge of signing a 20-year lease on the former Quebec pavilion. He brushed it off as no big deal. City officials remained bullish on the prospect, anticipating nearly 300 jobs and annual tax returns of half a million dollars. By this point the project was estimated to cost $16-million, of which Sendel would have to be able to guarantee over $5-million. Long serving (and suffering) Montreal city councilor Marvin Rotrand remarked at the time that a guy who was being sued over an unpaid $1,400 bill wasn’t inspiring much confidence.

An April 1994 Gazette report revealed Sendel’s past bankruptcies and fraud convictions. In the 1980s alone, he was hit with 109 lawsuits. Sendel’s CV was all over the map, none of which pointed clearly in the direction of opening a multi-million-dollar dinosaur attraction.

The feds pulled nearly $1-million in loans in April of 1994, at which point Sendel had racked up $1.7-million in Dinasaurium-related unpaid bills, and lawsuits for $650,000. The province then pulled their funding. The Dinasaurium went extinct shortly thereafter, though the city was on the hook as it had been named in various lawsuits related to unpaid bills. 

Sendel fled Montreal for Mexico, where he then attempted to resurrect his dinosaur theme park idea — albeit this time in a cave. Taking advantage of the mid-1990s Mexican economic crisis, Sendel managed to secure concessions at the Cacahuamilpa Caves, a major national park and a treasure of Mexico’s natural environment. Sendel was a fugitive on the run when he inked the deal, hoping to repurpose the animatronic dinosaurs intended for Montreal by sticking them in a Mexican grotto. It became a scandal in Mexico and, thankfully, never came to be. Sendel was ultimately caught up in fraud charges in Mexico as well.

Then, in 1997, Sendel — still wanted for fraud — sued the city of Montreal and Loto-Québec — for $20-million, arguing that the city and provincial gambling authority had conspired to kill his project. Sendel was ultimately deported back to Canada and presumably dropped his lawsuit against the city.

Sendel is still alive, living in rural Tennessee, where he’s the owner of Chef Minute Meals, a producer of instant meals that are marketed to disaster relief agencies or doomsday preppers. He has contributed to Donald Trump’s election campaigns.

About two miles away, there’s a roadside attraction called Backyard Terrors and Dinosaur Park. I’ve been assured Barry Sendel has nothing to do with it. ■

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Cult MTL. 

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes.