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Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
The Toronto Star

January 24, 2005 Monday


LENGTH: 1722 words

HEADLINE: Aquarium dilemma

BYLINE: Peter Gorrie, Toronto Star


How do you turn several thousand fish into one white elephant?

It's not a magician's trick.

Instead, it's the almost inevitable result if a public aquarium, such as the one proposed for Toronto's Exhibition Place, is built in the wrong place and in the wrong way.

Presto! A bright and shimmering attraction is transformed into a lumbering burden that has a ravenous appetite for cash and leaves piles of unsavoury problems in its wake.

Although Toronto's project is at the very early stages - private-sector proponents have until Feb. 25 to express interest - some aquarium experts suggest it's heading for trouble.

Aquariums are expensive to build and very costly to operate, they say. And, in the current climate where competition for entertainment spending is intense, they require certain things to succeed.

Three elements are key, says Deb Fassnacht, executive vice-president of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and a student of the industry.

They need to be part of a critical mass of attractions. They can't be saddled with debt. And they must have "something charismatic" to attract the large numbers of paying customers they require to stay afloat.

The proposed Toronto aquarium appears to be missing at least two of those essentials; the third is uncertain.

The 4.63-hectare site is tucked away at the west end of Exhibition Place, a barren expanse that for most of the year is devoid of people. The main nearby attractions are tired, summer-only Ontario Place, the cavernous National Trade Centre, a small casino and a dinner theatre.

As for charismatic attractions, it won't include the most popular : whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.

"There are restrictions: no mammals in this aquarium," says Councillor Joe Pantalone, who, as chair of Exhibition Place, is spearheading the project. "Mammals are biologically our cousins and it would be completely inappropriate" to bring them in, he says.

"We don't have whales and dolphins in our aquariums," says Bob Masterson, president of Ripley Entertainment Inc. of Orlando, Fla., which operates two aquariums in U.S. cities, is building two others and is expected to be a leading candidate to construct Toronto's.

That policy will avoid conflict with powerful animal rights activists, who are vowing to fight any attempt to include whales, dolphins or other marine mammals in the project.

"We've put them on notice: it would spark a massive controversy if they attempt to bring in any mammals," says Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, in Toronto. "It won't just be us. It will be massive. There will be groups from right around the world lobbying the city for this not to be allowed to happen."

Excluding marine mammals will, however, make it more difficult to attract crowds of visitors, particularly at the high admission prices aquariums must charge to cover their costs.

"You have to have ... sharks or marine mammals or something," Fassnacht says.

Critics argue that marine mammals are intelligent, social and need far more space than they get in any enclosure. Studies have shown they live only half as long in captivity as they do in the wild, says Michael O'Sullivan, executive director of the Toronto-based Humane Society of Canada.

"The problem is the miseducation of the public, that it's okay to take these highly intelligent, social animals from their families at a young age, put them in concrete boxes and force them to do silly pet tricks," says Annelise Sorg, president of the Vancouver-based Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, which helped persuade that city's aquarium to stop housing killer whales.

Ripley's Masterson says they aren't essential: "We've been successful without them."

But Fassnacht says the big mammals play an important role in aquariums.

The Shedd, like most others in the U.S., is a non-profit operation with an educational and political mission: to inspire visitors to care about Earth's oceans, lakes and rivers, and the creatures that inhabit them.

It wants its animals to "connect people to the living world, and no animal in the building does a better job of that than whales and dolphins. People see these animals and they're completely wowed," Fassnacht says.

As long as they get top-quality care and aren't forced into doing circus stunts, "they become ambassadors for the wild," argues Peter Chermayeff of Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole Inc., a Boston architectural firm that specializes in aquarium design and development.

"They make people care more. When you care, you become another voice for habitat protection."

Most U.S. aquariums, whether for profit or non-profit, display dolphins, whales or both, and all have some sort of marine mammals. That includes two of the "big three": Shedd and Baltimore National.

The third, Monterey Bay, on a spectacular Pacific coast site, has none in captivity, but visitors can see them from the aquarium's deck, cavorting in the animal-rich open ocean.

It's possible to succeed without marine mammals, as a freshwater aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., is proving.

It showcases freshwater marine life from habitats stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can see, for example, how brook trout hide in river eddies then come out into the current to feed, says Chermayeff, whose firm designed it.

People enjoy learning about environments that seem familiar but that they don't really know, he says.

Peterson and others point out that aquariums, like any other attraction, must constantly offer new and exciting exhibits.

Monterey welcomed about 2.5 million visitors in its first year, then watched as attendance slowly and steadily eroded. The aquarium began a program of special exhibitions, which are changed regularly, and brought in a charismatic attraction: the only white shark in captivity. Annual attendance now averages about 1.8 million.

But anything - even jellyfish or seahorses - can draw visitors if it's done right, Peterson says.

Backers of Toronto's proposed aquarium say it will attract tourists and boost the city's western waterfront. But industry observers have doubts about how much business such a stand-alone project can bring in.

More crucial than having mammals, they say, is that aquariums be part of a critical mass of attractions or, at the very least, be on sites where other development can happen.

"You can't be confident of success standing alone unless you're very, very good," Chermayeff says.

It's far better, he says, to have "synergies" with other attractions or features. The ideal is to create a location where visitors, rather than coming just to see the aquarium, will spend an entire day or even stay overnight.

That suggests that Toronto's proposed site - a considerable distance from downtown, hemmed in by roads and railway tracks, and with only a couple of small, all-year attractions nearby - presents a challenge.

At Exhibition Place, "there is some planning of some other adjacent development to be considered," Chermayeff says, cautiously.

Experience across North America shows that whether or not aquariums display whales and dolphins, they rarely succeed on their own, says John Holer, who owns and operates Marineland, on 400 hectares in Niagara Falls. At first an aquarium may look successful, he says, but people visit only once or twice: "They don't want to come back and see the same thing."

Marineland includes rides, restaurants and other attractions, and is undergoing another expansion, Holer says. And it's in Niagara Falls, which is already a tourist mecca.

The Shedd Aquarium - which is the world's largest indoor aquarium and attracts about 2 million people a year - is close to downtown Chicago, next to a planetarium and the world-famous Field Museum. The Art Institute of Chicago is nearby.

The Baltimore National was part of an extensive downtown waterfront redevelopment. Monterey Bay is on a main tourist route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Atlanta is getting a massive new aquarium, but it's being built along with a Coca-Cola museum.

The Chattanooga aquarium went up in a derelict industrial district, but it's just nine blocks from the small city's downtown and was surrounded by developable land. Before long, it attracted three new hotels, several dozen stores and restaurants and other attractions, and helped to revive what is now known as the "Environmental City."

"It helps if everything around you is being developed according to plan," Peterson says.

All of Ripley's aquariums are near the company's museums and other features, says spokesperson Tim O'Brien.

Ripley this week broke ground on a $200 million project in Niagara Falls that will eventually include an aquarium, but only after a hotel and all-year water park are completed.

Aquariums in Tampa, Fla., Camden, N.J., and Long Beach, Calif., ran into financial trouble because development didn't follow them as quickly as expected.

Financial prospects are difficult to assess, experts say.

Most U.S. aquariums are non-profit organizations or publicly owned, and were built with large grants from generous donors or government-backed financing. A few, including Shedd, get part of their operating budget from the host city.

Toronto's plan is a rare attempt to build an aquarium without government financing, apart from favourable terms for a 99-year lease on the property and transit improvements. City officials say they've contacted about 50 potential builders, but only four private companies operate large marine exhibits in North America.

City officials expect it would attract at least a million visitors each year, for an annual operating profit of up to $11 million.

Masterson estimates it would cost more than $100 million to build and $30,000 a day to operate.

Simple arithmetic using these numbers suggests tickets would have to cost an average of about $20, just to cover operating costs and the forecast profit. More would probably be needed to repay the construction investment.

The main thing, the experts say, is to do an aquarium well.

"You have to have a very clear vision of what you're planning to do" as well as "a really conservative financial plan," Peterson says.

Despite the potential problems, Chermayeff - who was involved in some of the previous attempts to launch a Toronto aquarium - is optimistic.

"Toronto will respond to a world-class aquarium very well," he says. "It's a great place for this to happen."

GRAPHIC: RICHARD GREEN associated press A black tip reef shark cruises in a tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium. The California facility had to woo visitors despite its spectacular site.

LOAD-DATE: January 24, 2005
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Copyright 2003 The Tribune Co. Publishes The Tampa Tribune
Tampa Tribune (Florida)

November 1, 2003, Saturday, FINAL EDITION
Correction Appended


LENGTH: 1317 words

HEADLINE: Public On The Hook

BYLINE: ANDY REID and JOE HUMPHREY , The Tampa Tribune; Researchers Diane K. Grey and Michael Messano contributed to this report. Reporter Andy Reid can be reached at or (813) 259-8409. Reporter Joe Humphrey can be reached at jhumphrey@; or (813) 259-7691.

TAMPA - Fixing cash flow problems at The Florida Aquarium cost the city $850,000 last week.

Last month, the city provided $150,000 to patch a shortfall in aquarium parking revenue.

Such expenses have become routine for the aquarium's biggest investor: Tampa taxpayers.

More than eight years after it opened, the downtown attraction continues to rely on tax money at a level beyond that of several other publicly subsidized aquariums across the country.

From Charleston, S.C., to Chattanooga, Tenn., aquariums with greater private funding than Tampa's are closer to the end of their debt. And from Denver to Boston, other cities have not put their taxpayers on the hook.

Tampa acquired the aquarium, its land and an 11-acre parking lot in 1996, a year after it opened, in an effort to help the floundering facility.

The nonprofit Florida Aquarium Inc. had borrowed money on the bond market to build it, with the city and the Tampa Port Authority pledging to cover debt payment shortfalls if revenues didn't cover expenses. But as attendance quickly sank below rosy projections, the city decided to issue its own bonds and take on the burden.
Today, about $180 million in debt is expected to stretch to 2027, when the city will have paid more than double the aquarium's $84 million construction cost. That doesn't count the payments of as much as $1 million a year to help cover operating expenses.

The numbers were supposed to start going down two years ago, but aquarium representatives blame the Sept. 11 attacks for driving up insurance costs and requiring more help from the city.

Mayor Pam Iorio's administration plans to look for ways to cut the cost while living up to the city's agreement.

"We have to be realistic," City Finance Director Bonnie Wise said. "It is the city's aquarium."

The situation is comparable to one in Duluth, Minn., which took control of Great Lakes Aquarium a year ago after the facility missed revenue and attendance projections and fell behind on bills.

The $33 million aquarium was built mostly with city and state money, and the city was "kind of on the hook to step in an operate it," said Les Bass, Duluth's finance director.

The city inherited $175,000 in past due expenses, Bass said, and it spent an additional $225,000 early this year to keep it open after cost cutting left most employees without jobs. Volunteers stepped up to keep the aquarium open on weekends through the winter, and daily operations resumed Memorial Day.

Chris Andrews, director of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, blames a flawed business model for the woes in Tampa and Duluth.

Rather than collecting a substantial down payment through private donations, The Florida Aquarium was built like a new home financed with little money up front and the promise to pay a daunting bill in the years ahead.

"Your mortgage payments, if you will, are several million dollars a year," Andrews said.

Coupled with optimistic attendance projections common in the business, he said, it's easy to see how such a project quickly begins treading water.

Other Cities Stand Back

In South Carolina, Andrews said, annual attendance has run closer to 500,000 than the projected 750,000 to 1 million.

But more than $20 million was raised from private donors for a $69 million project, significantly reducing debt. And although the city and state kicked in most of the remainder, neither government has a financial stake if the aquarium tanks.

The aquarium remains in the red, with nearly $12 million owed to a bank and $9.5 million to Charleston. But it's not bleeding, Andrews said. It has posted positive operating numbers since 2001.

"We're now going into year four. We've probably had everything except a plague of locusts - terrorism, a global war, a recession," Andrews said. "I think we're well-positioned to do OK."

A model of success cited nationally is the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. Having beaten attendance projections since it opened in 1992, it's undergoing a $30 million expansion, with two-thirds financed by private donors and the rest in aquarium-issued bonds.

Chattanooga has a riverfront renaissance campaign highlighted by $56 million in hotel taxes, but the aquarium won't use those public dollars for the expansion.

Denver is offered as a different sort of example of keeping public and private money separate. The Ocean Journey aquarium went bankrupt last year - and the city refused to help.

The aquarium emerged from a bankruptcy filing free of debt, and it turns a slight profit for a new owner. Oddly enough, it's owned by the Landry's chain of seafood restaurants.

Tampa Looks At Numbers

In August, The Florida Aquarium announced it would operate in the black for the fifth consecutive year. But all of those years factor in city subsidies.

The annual operating aid started with a $500,000 city payment for part of 1997, said Sue Ellen Richardson, the aquarium's marketing and public relations director. The subsidy rose to $1 million in 1998 and 1999, and dropped to $800,000 in 2000 and $700,000 in 2001, when it was supposed to level off.

Instead, it shot back to $1 million in 2002 and the $850,000 approved last week. The aquarium blamed economic ripples from the terrorist attacks; Richardson said property insurance costs rose from $75,000 to $375,000.

The city agreed to share those costs. It also agreed to give $150,000 a year in compensation for allowing a cruise ship terminal to be built on land the aquarium once used for parking. The parking help stops after this year's payment, Richardson said.

The aquarium drew 489,730 visitors from October 2002 through July, about 11,000 fewer than expected. Revenue rose a bit, though, partly because of new programs that let visitors pay to swim with fish or dive with sharks.

The aquarium's annual budget is $11 million. Richardson said the goal is to reduce the city's share of that budget, not necessarily the dollar amount.

"This year has been a particularly difficult year," she said. "The plan is to reduce it slowly over time."

Wise, the city budget chief, said the government expects to see a drop in dollars, not just percentage.

"We really need to spend some time with the aquarium folks," she said.

A Question Of Value

Andrews, who worked at the National Aquarium in Baltimore before moving to South Carolina, contends public financial support is not a bad thing.

The value should be measured in educational programs and a cultural mark on the community, he said.

"I don't know what the local sentiments are, but you have a great aquarium," he said. "It needs all the great support it can get. It's hard to measure the impact of that thing by its bottom line."

A leader of the venerable Shedd Aquarium in Chicago backed him up.

Even though Shedd makes enough money each year to run smoothly, "we do get some operating funds from the Chicago taxpayers," Executive Vice President Debra Kerr Fassnacht said. "I think it's appropriate for cities to support their cultural attractions."

She pointed out that the aquarium and eight other museums, combined, draw more tourists than all of the city's professional sports teams.

The Florida Aquarium's yearly city payment to help with operating costs did not level off two years ago as expected.
1997: $500,000
1998: $1 million
1999: $1 million
2000: $800,000
2001: $700,000
2002: $1 million
2003: $850,000

$6.7 million Principal and interest on bond debt
$850,000 Annual payment for operating expenses
$150,000 Payment for parking revenue shortfall
$7.7 million Tax money and other public money committed this year to


CORRECTION-DATE: November 8, 2003

A headline accompanying a story in the Nov. 1 Nation/ World section about The Florida Aquarium should have noted that tax money and other public money are used to provide this year's city subsidy to the attraction.

Tribune photo by CLIFF McBRIDE

(C) The Florida Aquarium drew 489,730 visitors from October 2002 through July, but the attraction has depended on money from Tampa taxpayers. "We have to be realistic," City Finance Director Bonnie Wise says. "It is the city's aquarium."
Tribune file photo by MARK GUSS

Revenue at the aquarium rose recently, partly because of new programs that let visitors pay to swim with fish or dive with sharks. Problems remain, however. "This year has been a particularly difficult year," says Ellen Richardson, the aquarium's marketing and public relations director. She

says the aquarium's annual budget is $11 million.

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Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
The Boston Globe

November 13, 2003, Thursday ,THIRD EDITION


LENGTH: 1010 words


BYLINE: By Mac Daniel, Globe Staff

The financially struggling New England Aquarium will lay off up to 20 percent of its staff tomorrow, turn some educational facilities into office space, and ask donors to save the sea otter and sea lion exhibits.

The cuts were outlined in e-mails and faxes sent yesterday to the aquarium's 220 full-time employees. The 34-year-old nonprofit institution has almost no money left in its reserves, according to an e-mail to the staff and an aquarium spokeswoman.

In March, the facility became the first major aquarium or zoo in the nation to lose its accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association because of fiscal and maintenance problems. Tomorrow's announcement is part of a restructuring plan intended to stop years of deficit spending and keep the institution financially afloat.

Edmund C. Toomey, the aquarium's president, said in yesterday's memo that the aquarium is in "a precarious position" that "despite our best efforts, has not showed significant improvement" since it lost accreditation in March.

"None of these decisions came easily," Toomey wrote. "But they are what we believe are necessary to return the aquarium to a state of operating profit - no more, no less."

Bankruptcy is not being considered for the aquarium, which is expected to show a $1.4 million operating deficit this year. In addition, $35 million in maintenance, which includes an upgrade of the aquarium's entire electrical system, is being deferred, said spokeswoman Karen Schwartzman.

"These changes, we hope, will help us to return to a level of operating stability and also erase the debt we have to our vendors, to whom we owe substantial sums, in many cases for more than 90 days," Schwartzman said. The aquarium's vendor debt, she said, is around $2.5 million.

Aquarium officials have blamed the financial problems on the weak economy after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sagging gate receipts, access difficulties caused by the Big Dig, and an abandoned $125 million East Wing expansion. The expansion project and its cancellation plunged the institution into financial turmoil, in part because of some financial contracts that could not be broken.

With 220 full-time employees, the aquarium could eliminate up to 44 jobs tomorrow if 20 percent are laid off. Schwartzman said the cuts will be "across the board and at all levels," including vice presidents and communication staff. There will be no changes in operating hours as part of the plan, she said.

Two major exhibits, the sea otters and sea lions, are threatened if the aquarium is unable to get a major gift to build a new sea lion exhibit and pay for the $25,000 a year in herring consumed by the sea otters. The sea lion exhibit is housed on the Discovery, a rusting boat docked next to the aquarium that is in need of significant maintenance, which officials say will not be performed in the future.

"We cannot continue to invest maintenance dollars into the Discovery," Schwartzman said. "Ultimately, we need to dispose of the Discovery while pursuing major gift funding to relocate the sea lions. That is a priority, and it is a significant priority."

Toomey said in yesterday's memo that "the sea lions will remain at the aquarium, but only if we are able to secure funding for a new exhibit to house them."

Officials are also looking into selling certain aquarium assets, including the Discovery and the Voyager III, the boat that conducts the aquarium's whale watches.

Schwartzman said the aquarium would continue the whale watch program if the Voyager were sold.

Aquarium officials also plan to renegotiate a lease for some of the institution's office space at 177 Milk St., moving some of it to classrooms at the aquarium's Exploration Center, adjacent to the aquarium on Central Wharf. To accommodate the move, some educational programs will be modified and others will be cut, Schwartzman said.

The memo said the rescue and rehabilitation program for stranded sea mammals and other animals will be scaled back, but not eliminated. The budget for animal husbandry, including the care and training of certain animals, will be reduced.

Members of the aquarium's board of directors approved the restructuring Nov. 5 after hiring a Boston-based consultant to develop a recovery plan, Schwartzman said.

Many aquarium employees have blamed the financial situation in part on former president Jerry Schubel, who was behind the capital project to expand the East Wing. The cost jumped from $70 million to $125 million before the project was dropped. Cancellation meant returning about $12 million in pledges.

Schubel, who now runs the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., retired shortly after the expansion program was scrapped in November 2001. He was out of the office this week and did not return phone calls.

Between 1994 and 2001, most of that time under Schubel's leadership, the aquarium spent $73 million on capital projects while raising just $27 million in gifts, Schwartzman said. To pay off some of that debt, the aquarium tapped its reserve fund, which dropped from $21 million to $3.2 million, none of which can now be used because it is collateral for loans, she said.

The aquarium's one solid money maker has been the new Simons IMAX movie theater, which brings in between $4 million and $5 million annually.

Meanwhile, the aquarium has experienced a 14 percent decline in visitors this year, while at the same time increasing ticket prices for adults from $13.50 to $15.50. Aquarium officials have reported that attendance set a record last year, in part due to the IMAX opening. The downturn in attendance was part of a nationwide trend that is slowly ebbing, according to Jane Ballentine, spokeswoman with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

"Things have really rebounded in some areas," she said. "From my understanding, it seems that the problems [at the New England Aquarium] are a little deeper than just a downturn in the economy."

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, The fiscal crunch threatens the sea lion exhibit. Above, assistant curator Jenny Montague with 659-pound Guthrie. / GLOBE STAFF PHOTO / EVAN RICHMAN

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Copyright 2004 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

November 19, 2004 Friday

LENGTH: 807 words

HEADLINE: Aquarium funds doubtful

BYLINE: Brady Snyder Deseret Morning News


For once, the Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Rocky Anderson agree on something.

And that is that there is "virtually no chance" the proposed Living Planet Aquarium can secure public funding -- money the aquarium needs if it is to exist.

"They need to realize we are absolutely unified on this," Anderson said following Thursday's hourlong, closed-door session with the City Council, acting as the city's Redevelopment Agency Board.

During the public portions of Thursday's meeting, the board ended its lease with aquarium proponents, who now have until Dec. 12 to purchase the RDA-owned land, at 500 West and 400 South, for $3.8 million. It isn't that the RDA wants to sell the hot property but, according to its aquarium contract, it has to give the aquarium backers a chance to purchase the land.

Living Planet Aquarium President Brent Andersen said he "has no worries" about coming up with the money, which is to be supplied by private backers. He also begs to differ with the mayor on whether the aquarium can secure public funding. Andersen said the public has already given its support by turning out in droves to the aquarium's preview exhibit at The Gateway.

More than 72,000 people have visited a small aquarium exhibit at The Gateway, many more than advocates predicted.

And the exhibit is unique in Utah.

A female white-tipped reef shark just gave birth to pups that Andersen described as "exact miniatures of the adults, equipped with a full set of teeth and ready to eat." New exhibits are planned for spring.

The larger aquarium, just two blocks south of The Gateway, would be a spiffy upgrade and could be incorporated into some residential and commercial uses that developers plan for the area. All in all, the project would be just what Salt Lake City leaders say they want -- more housing, more retail and a big attraction to bring people downtown.

But while the public may be excited, political leaders aren't.

Coming from Thursday's meeting, Rocky Anderson had some advice for the aquarium's board of directors: Kill the project now.

Anderson believes the board will kill the project because it will "become clear to the aquarium board that there is virtually no chance for them to get public funding."

That public funding would come if the Salt Lake County Council voted to hold a bond election that would generate $40 million in taxpayer funds for the aquarium.

Anderson said Thursday the County Council won't go for it.

"I have received indication that the majority of the County Council is opposed to putting it on the ballot," he said.

Contacted Thursday, county Councilman Joe Hatch seemed none too enthusiastic about the proposal, while Councilman Michael Jensen was more open but still had many questions.

Anderson said even if the aquarium were on the ballot, "I don't think there is a prayer voters would opt to spend tax dollars" on the aquarium.

Contacted Thursday, Salt Lake County Mayor-elect Peter Corroon said he hasn't formulated an opinion on the aquarium yet, which aquarium attorney David Wolf and the aquarium president joked was the best political news they'd heard in a while.

Meanwhile, RDA staffers will propose terms of the sale, which RDA chairman Eric Jergensen said will include a time frame in which an aquarium has to be built. Wolf has noted no time frame is mentioned in the aquarium's option to purchase the land, but he said Thursday some time frame may be worked out.

The aquarium's location has become a contentious issue of late because city leaders would like to take control of the suddenly hot property two blocks south of the thriving Gateway. There have been numerous development opportunities mentioned for the site, which will rest just south of the city's new intermodal hub, slated for construction in 2007.

The mayor said the block where the aquarium is proposed is definitely not being considered as a site for a new major league soccer stadium but held out when asked if the land could be used as barter material in soccer stadium negotiations.

Last month, city leaders thought they could simply kill the aquarium by ending the RDA's lease for the property. However, they later found out the aquarium had an option to buy the land.

Jergensen said the RDA will negotiate terms of the sale, and if common ground can't be found, "they will probably litigate."

"There is a sense by the board that if the aquarium is not going to be built within a given time frame, we want to get the land back," he said.

At least one private aquarium backer agreed that if the RDA tries to impose many restrictions on the sale, it will end up in court.

Councilman Dale Lambert, who has consistently voted against the aquarium, agreed, noting for once the council did seem to be united with the mayor.

"You've been hearing me for 2 1/2 years, and I haven't changed my mind," Lambert said. E-mail:

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Copyright 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Copyright 2003 The Register Guard
The Register Guard

June 11, 2003, Wednesday


LENGTH: 1354 words

HEADLINE: Oregon Aquarium Pulls Out of Crisis after Close Call with Financial Disaster

BYLINE: By Winston Ross

NEWPORT, Ore. -- On Al Gleason's desk at the Oregon Coast Aquarium sits an inconspicuous magic 8-ball, the kind he can shake and flip over and ask a question, causing a triangle-sided box to tumble around for awhile and then respond "No," "Ask again later," or "Undoubtedly so."

A year ago, when Gleason was chairman of the aquarium's board of directors and he discovered that the 10-year-old institution had a $ 4 million deficit known to only one woman, Gleason needed more answers than the triangle could deliver.

How did the aquarium's director conceal the multimillion-dollar funding gap for an exhibit she hoped would cure the revenue hemorrhage created when Keiko the killer whale headed for Iceland?

How and why did that former director, Phyllis Bell, take out a $ 2 million loan to cover the impasse without anyone knowing it?

Could the aquarium survive the blow?

Gleason and other aquarium officials have agonized over these questions in recent months, and tried to put one of Newport's biggest tourism draws back together again. Now, he's sure that if he were to ask the 8-ball whether the aquarium is going to pull away from financial crisis, it would tell him "Undoubtedly so."

The aquarium has repaid most of the $ 1.5 million it owed on past due accounts. It has renegotiated new payment schedules with creditors. The exhibit to replace Keiko -- Passages of the Deep -- continues to draw visitors, and a new exhibit on deep sea exploration recently opened.

Donors have pledged $ 1.8 million of the $ 4 million still needed to pay for Passages. And attendance is leveling to healthy, pre-Keiko numbers.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office is investigating whether Bell is guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. There is no talk of a lawsuit against Bell. As Gleason put it, "I don't think there's any way you can get blood out of a turnip. For us to try and claim damages would be a waste of time and expense on our part."

The aquarium certainly doesn't have much money to waste, says Rick Paulette, the aquarium's chief financial officer, recalling when he learned of the aquarium's money troubles.

"The day I discovered it, I thought we were going to close our doors, quite frankly," Paulette said. "We came through a very hard winter."

Phyllis Bell could not be reached this week and her Portland attorney did not return phone calls.

Bell was an integral player at the aquarium since its founding 11 years ago. In 1992 when it opened on a 39-acre Yaquina Bay site, nearly 800,000 people flocked there to see the collection of seabirds, fish, marine mammals, invertebrates and plants on display.

As the novelty wore off, the numbers dipped to around half a million in 1993, but when Keiko arrived in 1996, the attendance nearly doubled. Much of the profits the whale brought in had to be passed on to the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, $ 7.5 million over four years, but Keiko's movie star status was a huge boost to the aquarium's notoriety and popularity.

Then, Keiko left in 1998 and attendance dropped by half. Still, in 1999, more than a half-million people showed up, which for Newport, a city of 10,000 people, was nothing to sneeze at. But the aquarium needed an attraction to fill the gap -- and Keiko's empty 1.3 million-gallon tank, which consumed 30 percent of the aquarium.

So, aquarium leaders created Passages of the Deep, which opened in 2000, splitting Keiko's huge tank into three ocean habitats. They built a 200-foot acrylic tunnel at the bottom designed to create the feeling of swimming with the sharks and other interesting creatures.

Bell told the aquarium's board that the exhibit would cost around $ 8 million, Gleason said. It did, at first. But the costs grew to $ 12 million, as new elements were added to the exhibit. To cover the deficit, Gleason said, Bell secretly took out a $ 2 million loan -- and started slipping on payments to vendors and creditors.

As Bell was the director and chief financial officer, she maintained tight control over the aquarium's finances, and was able to hide millions from Paulette, then the head accountant, Gleason said.

"It was always (that) she was working on a large donation, she was going to get a loan, we were going to be OK," Paulette said. "But you could see the aquarium continue to go downhill."

Eventually, the unpaid bills started to catch up with Bell, Gleason said. He pressed Bell for answers and spreadsheets and she fabricated both, he said, claiming attendance figures were low because of Sept. 11, but that there were plans in the works to turn things around. She'd been a trusted, credible director for years. Gleason and board members had no reason to suspect Bell was lying.

All that changed, however, after Paulette was promoted to chief financial officer in the spring of 2002. Not suspicious but worried, the board decided there needed to be a better system of checks and balances at the aquarium, and hoped that having another set of eyes on the books, the financial picture would grow clearer.

It did, but not in a good way.

Gleason went on vacation last summer to Pennsylvania, where he got a call from Paulette, who'd discovered a $ 50,000 payment Bell made, but couldn't figure out where it went. He then discovered it had gone toward the $ 2 million loan.

What $ 2 million loan?

"I hung up the phone and called (fellow board member) Mark Collson," Gleason said. "I said 'We have been lied to. I want Phyllis out of that office before sunset. I want the computer secured, the locks changed, I want her keys and she's suspended until further notice."

A week later, Bell resigned. The aquarium went public with its story and initiated a massive fund-raising effort last August. The city council approved a 1 percent room tax that brought in $ 500,000, the board itself pledged $ 700,000, ideas for fund-raisers began to churn and letters went out to potential donors.

In fiscal year 2001 and 2002, the aquarium brought in more than $ 330,000 each year from fund-raising. With the last two months of the current fiscal year yet to be calculated, that number has skyrocketed to $ 1.15 million for 2003. Toward the $ 4 million deficit, the board has raised $ 1.8 million.

Gleason said he's hoping those funds will convince big organizations like the Ford Foundation that the aquarium has worked hard to make itself solvent and that he can convince potential donors to match some of the funds already earned.

Meanwhile, the board has renegotiated payment schedules with a host of creditors and paid down its outstanding accounts from $ 1.5 million to less than $ 200,000. The aquarium intends to ask its bondholders for a delay in principal payments it makes for the next three years.

And attendance numbers should soon rebound to pre-Keiko levels. Passages of the Deep boosted attendance from 415,000 in fiscal year 2000 to 792,000 in fiscal year 2001. Last year the figure was 579,000, which mirrors the numbers posted during the years before Keiko arrived.

Pat Helbling, the aquarium's former assistant director, is now its acting director, and he's hoping to be appointed to that post full-time.

"We certainly still have a long ways to go," Paulette said. "If it wasn't for the fund-raising accomplished this past winter, we wouldn't have had enough money to keep our doors open.

"We've come a long way."

So the "how" and the "what next" questions are answered, it appears. But what the leaders of this aquarium and the Newport community may never know is "why?"

Most agree that Bell had good intentions for the aquarium. The running theory is that she simply got in over her head and didn't ask for help.

No one has heard from her for several months and she may have left the state.

"Phyllis was good to me. She hired me. I still consider her a friend," Paulette said. "She did some wonderful things for the aquarium."


To see more of The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore., or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to


LOAD-DATE: June 12, 2003
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Copyright 2003 MediaNews Group, Inc.
Long Beach Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA)

June 1, 2003 Sunday


LENGTH: 1000 words

HEADLINE: Aquarium saps city fund;
$3M expected bond payment leaves deficit in tourism promotion coffer

BYLINE: Jason Gewirtz, Staff writer

LONG BEACH - The city's debt payments on the Aquarium of the Pacific's bonds will increase to $3 million this year, a move that is having a ripple effect on a city fund used to promote Long Beach to tourists, conventioneers and other potential visitors.

The city expects to contribute $1.2 million in November to cover the aquarium's $3.3 million semi-annual bond payment, said Mike Killebrew, the city's budget bureau manager. That payment comes on top of $1.8 million in city money used for the building's last bond payment in May.

The city is obligated to make any bond payments that the aquarium cannot meet. The city contributed $700,000 toward those payments in 2002, the first time aquarium revenue was not enough to cover the full amount.

While city officials say they are optimistic about the aquarium's future, they are also feeling the burden of the bond payments in the city fund that promotes the aquarium and other attractions to potential visitors.

City finance officials are forecasting a structuraldeficit next year for the Special Advertising and Promotions Fund, according to a May 20 memo from Finance Director Bob Torrez. Last year, the fund received $730,000 in downtown hotel room tax revenue that is now being pledged to the aquarium payments.

The fund's main beneficiary is the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, which this year received $3.7 million of the $4.7,million available in the fund. The money represents about 85 percent of the bureau's budget to market the city, said Steve Goodling, the CVB's president and CEO.

The rest of the Special Advertising and Promotions Fund is spent on citywide events such as July 4th fireworks, the Long Beach Junior Concert Band and city parades.

While the fund will project more in expenses than revenue next year, City Manager Jerry Miller said the city does not expect short-term changes in the CVB funding.

"At this point, our goal is to try and keep the CVB at the current year's level," Miller said.

Increases in overall hotel room visits and about $500,000 in reserves should help offset significant cuts in the fund for next year, Killebrew said.

But Goodling said the bureau is watching the trend.

"Right now, the city has made no indication that what is happening with the aquarium will have an impact on what we're doing," he said.

As another way to potentially offset the projected deficit, city officials and the CVB continue to study a potential ballot measure to increase the 12 percent hotel room tax to 14 percent or 15 percent, Miller said.

$117 million debt

When it was built in 1998, the aquarium was designed to meet its $117 million bond obligation largely through attendance revenue.

Attendance topped 1.5 million visitors the first year, but dipped gradually after that to roughly 1 million. Last year, however, the trend began to reverse.

In 2002, 1.14 million people visited the attraction, up from 1.04 million the year prior. From January to April 2003, 348,747 passed through the door, compared with 342,479 the year prior.

Those numbers rank the Aquarium of the Pacific among the strongest of aquariums nationwide, said Jerry Schubel, the aquarium's president and CEO. The percentage of Attendance among Hispanic visitors, he said, has increased from 15 percent to 30 percent over the last year.

Still, while attendance is holding steady, projected revenue is not keeping pace with the building's bond payment requirements.

In 2001, the city refinanced the attraction's debt in an effort to lower the annual payments and allow the aquarium to plan new programs to attract more visitors. The move shifted the bond obligation from the aquarium to the city, although aquarium revenue was still expected to cover the majority of the payments, which increase gradually over time.

Bond payments are due in May and November each year.

In May 2002, for the first time, aquarium revenue was not enough to cover the full bond payment. The city backed that $3.3 million payment with $700,000 from downtown hotel room tax revenue.

The November 2002 payment was made without city assistance. It was covered by the aquarium's annual boost from summer revenue, interest holdings and parking garage charges.

Last month, the city once again was required to make a payment, contributing $1.8 million in hotel room tax revenue. The city projection of $1.2 million in November would mark the first time the city expects to contribute to a November payment.

Help ahead?

City officials point to encouraging signs for the aquarium's future, including the recent start of Carnival Cruise Lines near the Queen Mary and the fall opening of the Pike at Rainbow Harbor dining/entertainment/retail complex between the aquarium and the Long Beach Convention Center.

But Schubel said it's unclear what benefit those developments will bring.

Carnival's cruises to date have been shorter outings attracting mostly local tourists who come to Long Beach and leave the same day as their cruises, he said. And the Pike project, he said, has not announced the mix of retail tenants that the aquarium hopes will draw potential daytime aquarium visitors.

Still, Schubel said the aquarium will benefit from a continued increase in programming designed to make the aquarium more than a simple tourist destination.

"This has to be a major community resource to the city not just to see fish, but for programs and lectures," he said.

A recent aquarium analysis shows the attraction has a $20,million annual local economic impact, he said.

The aquarium's chief financial officer, Vanessa Lewis, said the city's payment on the bonds allows the aquarium to invest its money on programming.

"Our current understanding with the city is [the aquarium] is a city asset," she said. "In the near-term... this is a city institution and most other aquariums across the country have some type of city or state subsidy."

LOAD-DATE: November 5, 2003
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Copyright 2004 Associated Press
All Rights Reserved

The Associated Press State & Local Wire

These materials may not be republished without the express written consent of The Associated Press

March 14, 2004, Sunday, BC cycle

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 499 words

HEADLINE: Duluth to erase aquarium's debt, sign new management deal


Just because the Great Lakes Aquarium is on the verge of erasing its debt doesn't mean the financial challenges are over for the 4-year-old attraction.

The aquarium will need to find ways to pay for maintenance and the creation and improvement of exhibits even after officials sign a long-term management contract with Ripley Entertainment Inc.

But aquarium board members say removing the construction debt and signing the Ripley deal will bring a level of stability to the attraction that it hasn't had. In the past four years, the aquarium has had to lay off staff and take out loans to stay afloat. It finally went broke, prompting the city to take it over.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council is expected to erase about $4.4 million in Duluth Economic Development Authority bond debt nobody expected the aquarium to repay. The council also is being asked to remove DEDA from any future claim on aquarium profits or involvement in the attraction.

Ripley won't commit to a long-term deal as long as the debt is on the books, even if it is only symbolic. "We'd sure like to get past this," said Jim Pattison Jr., executive vice president for Ripley.

Ripley began running the aquarium under a temporary, month-to-month contract in May after the previous management ran out of money and city leaders took over the aquarium. Ripley could finalize a five-year contract with the aquarium a couple of weeks after the council vote, Pattison said.

Aquariums generally begin to need expensive repairs after five years because of elaborate tanks and plumbing systems. That's why board members want to start socking away money to create a reserve fund of about $500,000 for future maintenance. Officials budgeted more than $12,000 for repairs in January alone.

A lot is at stake if the aquarium falls behind on maintenance.

The New England Aquarium became the first major aquarium to lose accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association because of financial and maintenance problems. The attraction delayed $35 million in maintenance because of a lack of money. The 34-year-old aquarium fell victim to overly ambitious expansion plans in the late 1990s that moved forward without nearly enough money from donors. By late last year, the nonprofit aquarium drained its reserves from $21 million to $3.2 million, none of which can be spent because it is now used to back loans.

"The vision got in the way of pragmatism," said Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for New England Aquarium. "It doesn't work like that."

Ripley officials are eager to add exhibits that create a "wow" factor that many say the Great Lakes Aquarium lacks. Ripley has successful aquariums in Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Those aquariums are more interactive, colorful and flashy than Duluth's purely freshwater aquarium.

Great Lakes Aquarium has changed little since it opened.


Information from: Duluth News Tribune,

LOAD-DATE: March 15, 2004
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Copyright 2004 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

April 17, 2004 Saturday

LENGTH: 518 words

HEADLINE: Deep-six the aquarium, Rocky says

BYLINE: Brady Snyder Deseret Morning News


Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson says it's time for the city to kill its deal with The Living Planet Aquarium.

The mayor's recommendation, included in a Friday report of the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency, comes after the aquarium failed to reach its March fund-raising milestone. That failure puts the aquarium in breach of its running contract with the city's RDA. The breach, in turn, gives the city the opportunity to end its contract with the aquarium, leaving the $47 million project without a home.

The RDA contract has given the aquarium a free lease on RDA property at 336 S. 500 West, where the aquarium could be built.

According to Friday's report, Anderson's recommendation is that the RDA "cancel the lease agreement (with the aquarium) and take possession of the property."

While Anderson didn't return calls for comment on his recommendation, RDA executive director Dave Oka said he didn't think the mayor disliked the aquarium as an idea but rather realized the aquarium was in violation of its contract and wasn't making even its smallest fund-raising goals.

The aquarium has actually failed to reach its last two fund-raising milestones, according to Friday's report. The city's RDA had imposed the milestones in January 2003 to make sure the aquarium was making progress in its effort to raise the $47 million it needs to begin construction in 2007.

At the end of March the aquarium was supposed to have raised over $2.5 million. However, aquarium proponents have raised less than $1.8 million, and $320,000 of that is free rent that The Gateway shopping center offered to the aquarium for a small fish pool that has yet to open.

In the report, RDA deputy director Valda Tarbet said that $320,000 in rent shouldn't count toward the aquarium's total because aquarium leaders had previously promised to have the exhibit open by March. Since The Gateway pool has not opened, the aquarium actually did not meet its September 2003 fund-raising mark either, according to the report.

In an effort to help make the aquarium a reality, the city's RDA had given aquarium leaders a free lease on the suddenly valuable property on 500 West near Pioneer Park and The Gateway. As property values in the area have risen and the aquarium has failed to live up to its commitments, some city leaders have suggested the city end its contract with the aquarium and begin to look to make a new deal on the land, possibly a housing development.

The city's RDA Board, which is the City Council, will consider whether to cancel the contract at its Thursday meeting.

Some council members have said they would be willing to give the aquarium another six-month contract extension if aquarium leaders can show they have a "solid plan" to raise more funds.

Aquarium President Brent Andersen has informally approached Salt Lake County officials about putting a $30 million to $45 million bond on this November's ballot that would fund the aquarium's construction costs. However, he has not made a formal request, according to Deputy Mayor Alan Dayton.

Andersen did not return calls for comment. E-mail:

LOAD-DATE: April 17, 2004
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Copyright 2004 The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)

April 17, 2004, Saturday

SECTION: Final; Pg. B1

LENGTH: 902 words

HEADLINE: Rocky says aquarium won't float ; He wants to cancel lease; other support appears to be eroding; Aquarium plans take another hit

BYLINE: Heather May and Thomas Burr , The Salt Lake Tribune

Plans for a $ 46.7 million aquarium in Salt Lake City may be sinking.

Mayor Rocky Anderson wants the City Council to cancel the Redevelopment Agency's lease with The Living Planet Aquarium after it fell $ 739,000 short of the latest city-established fund-raising goal. The mayor said Friday it is a risky venture he never thought was viable.

The RDA bought land for the aquarium in 2001 and may vote to take it back next week, possibly ending a five-year quest to build an inland water attraction. Similar venues have had mixed results in other cities.

Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman, up for re-election, doesn't want to ask county residents this year to raise their property taxes to give the aquarium $ 30 million toward the overall cost.

Without the promise of that bond vote, many City Council members say they will be less inclined to keep backing the aquarium.

"Unless the county decides to bond for it, it's time to move on," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said. "There are so many new projects going on in the city that need to raise private dollars that I don't think we can sustain all of them. We're going to have to make some hard choices."

On Thursday, the City Council, acting as the RDA board, must decide whether to extend the lease on land worth $ 3.8 million at 522 S. 400 West. At least four of the seven council members said Friday they would be willing to extend the lease to see how negotiations go with the county.

"Let's let this thing slide until the fall," Councilman Van Turner said. "That's our big hope [that] someone would come along and say here's the $ 40 million to build it."

Brent Andersen, aquarium president and founder, says the city can bank on more than just hope. That's why he will ask for a lease extension, possibly through November.

"To pull the plug right now," he said Friday, "right when we're on the verge of success, I can't imagine anyone would want to do that."

The aquarium was supposed to have raised $ 2.53 million by now; it has $ 1.79 million. Council members have extended the lease in the past. They even have reduced fund-raising benchmarks after the aquarium scaled back its design because of the struggling economy.

It is unclear how the land -- which houses the old Serta warehouse west of Pioneer Park -- could be used if the aquarium doesn't open. It eventually will be a sought-after spot, located near The Gateway and an intermodal hub that, once built, will combine light rail, commuter rail and bus service.

"If they have no other plan and the county won't bond for it, it's probably time, excuse the expression, to pull the plug," said City Councilman Eric Jergensen, the RDA chairman. "I'd like to give the aquarium as many opportunities as possible. They really need to come in and make a very solid presentation."

Meanwhile, county officials were set to return Friday from a trip to Chattanooga, Tenn., to understand how that city's aquarium and children's museum work together.

Salt Lake County could create a similar nexus: The Children's Museum of Utah and the aquarium are slated for space in or near Gateway, which already houses the year-old Clark Planetarium.

In a phone interview from Chattanooga, County Councilman Russell Skousen said the county may need to wait until 2006 to ask voters for an aquarium bond.

"It's shortsighted for Salt Lake City to yank that property at this point," Skousen said. "It's like, 'Look Salt Lake City, if you would just relax for a minute while we consider this.' It may be better for the ballot in two years. It's something we should explore."

Workman opposes a bond election this year. "Right now, if it causes raising taxes, I'm not supportive," she said. "If they pull the plug on this, [the aquarium] can always find another place. This isn't a life or death situation; this is an aquarium."

Councilman Randy Horiuchi, who supports a ballot question on the aquarium, says the project will survive even without the land. "Ground is an important piece, but there is some romance with the aquarium."

He added that the aquarium has "breathed some life" of late, but "whether it has enough life to slither onto the ballot, remains to be seen."

Last November, Salt Lake City voters agreed to bond for a science center, a sports complex, open space and renovations of Tracy Aviary and Hogle Zoo. Mayor Anderson also supports raising money -- possibly through a county or city bond -- to renovate Main Street's Utah Theatre for Broadway-style shows. Workman opposes the theater bond.

Anderson sees these projects as part of downtown's renaissance, but he doesn't count the aquarium in that vision.

"I've never been a particular fan. I understand the huge risk of failure of an aquarium, especially in the middle of a desert," the mayor said.

"A failed, closed aquarium is not going to do a whole lot for whatever area of the city in which it's located. That's a very real possibility.",

Preview exhibit

* The Living Planet Aquarium plans to open a 10,000-square-foot preview exhibit at The Gateway to generate excitement -- and donations -- for the full-scale attraction.

The Aquarium Experience at Gateway is set to open June 4 and include indigenous Utah aquatic life -- like salmon and trout -- as well as sea horses, blacktip sharks and a giant octopus.

GRAPHIC: Rocky Anderson

LOAD-DATE: April 17, 2004
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Copyright 2003 Dolan Media Newswires
The Daily Record (Baltimore, MD)

July 3, 2003 Thursday


LENGTH: 1855 words

HEADLINE: Baltimore aquarium and zoo revenues down, search continues for new funding resources

BYLINE: Daily Record Staff Business Writer

For the thousands of overly enthusiastic Maryland school children who visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore for free every year, watching the male seahorse give birth to hundreds of babies is far more interesting than the impact of the poor economy on the Inner Harbor hot spot.

But for Bob Ramin, senior director of development and head of fundraising at the aquarium, there are other things to worry about. Ramin still loves to talk about his child-like fascination with the touted seahorse exhibit, but he admits he has had to alter his approach when it comes to sustaining a flow of cash.

"You have to be more entrepreneurial in thinking of new ways to garner support," he said. "We're really trying to be as resourceful as possible. Talking to as many funders and trying to make a fit in terms of their priorities and the needs of the programs at the aquarium. We're working harder and we're working smarter."

That means pitching longer-term commitments, encouraging donors to pay over several years rather than all at once as they have in the past.

But as always, the key is to educate people about the extensive reach of the aquarium, he said, including their national conservation projects and plans for the new $112 million expansion, set to be completed in spring 2007.

The aquarium, operated by a nonprofit corporation, has an operating budget of about $25 million. Its recently released annual report lists the 2002 revenue at about $29 million, $6 million less than the previous two years. That loss is primarily attributed to a substantial drop in contributions and grants between 2001 and 2002, according to the aquarium's annual report.

Fishing where the fish are

In efforts to keep the annual visitation at more than 1.5 million, the aquarium has to attract repeat visitors.

Besides changing major exhibits every few years, as it will eventually do with the seahorse exhibit, it has added new types of tours, namely an "Immersion Tour" program that includes sleepovers alongside shark tanks.

With tickets ranging from $60 to $70--including a group buyout option priced at $2,300 for up to 35 people -- this and other behind-the-scenes tours generate thousands of dollars in added revenue.

The other half of the formula is to cut spending in ways the animals won't notice. Instead of using a water cooling tower to chill city water, a method that resulted in significant evaporation, the aquarium now subscribes to a private carrier of chilled water, which has reduced consumption by 25 percent and saved about $15,000.

Underlying the new ideas and changing exhibits are more stable factors that have kept the aquarium afloat for more than 20 years. An April 2002 Moody's Investment report outlined key characteristics of successful aquariums and rated Baltimore among the best.

"The National Aquarium in Baltimore's location in the revitalized Baltimore harbor area is one of the key factors driving the Aquarium's success as the development of retail and entertainment venues has driven growth in visitors to the Baltimore area," the report says.

"As a central attraction in the harbor area, NAIB's importance to the local economy and community has created a mutual dependence between the city and NAIB, resulting in good public support for NAIB's capital programs," the report said.

Lions and tigers and bears

But about a 10-minute drive away in Druid Hill Park, Baltimore Zoo President Billie Grieb said the zoo hasn't historically been a major draw for Inner Harbor tourists. Only about 20 percent of its gate revenue comes from tourists.

"The reason for that I believe is that the zoo does not get marketed as a tourist attraction by the Downtown Partnership," she said. "And there is an erroneous perception that it's difficult to get here."

But that doesn't mean the zoo has given up on tourists, she said. The MTA recently agreed to add "Baltimore Zoo" to the name of the nearest subway station stop.

Still, the problem is even more glaring at a time when the zoo is also looking for ways to combat budget cuts and convince more hesitant donors to invest.

On top of that, attendance dropped by more than 58,000 from 2000 to 2002 and this year's attendance is just half of what it was last year at this time, likely due to record rainfall of the past few months.

According to an American Zoo and Aquarium Association survey of 82 of 208 accredited institutions, attendance dropped 3 percent at aquariums and zoos between 2001 and 2002. Fifty-seven percent reported a decrease in attendance, 30 percent reported an increase and 13 percent said there was no significant change. Of those that reported a decrease, the average was 9 percent.

With an overall operating budget of $12 million, the Baltimore Zoo receives about 33 percent of it's funding from visitor revenue, 33 percent from the public sector and 34 percent via memberships and the private sector.

The zoo has worked under a "break-even scenario" for the past few years with its budget remaining about the same, said Ben Gross, senior manager of public relations for the zoo.

Some $3 million of its funding comes from the state, but $700,000 of it was cut by the legislature during the past two years.

Grieb said the zoo has made up for those losses with "general belt-tightening," including opting to leave many open positions unfilled, specifically administrative and operational positions such as marketing assistant and safari guide.

Gross makes his own copies and fulfills other office duties since his departmental assistant recently left. The zoo does not plan to fill that position any time soon, Grieb said.

It also outsourced its visitor food service to Aramark in what Grieb called a "better financial arrangement." The zoo had run the food service itself previously and had not done it very well, Grieb said.

All the changes come as the zoo renovates and rebuilds, including a highly publicized new polar bear exhibit opening in October as part of a $60 million capital project to "spiff up the zoo."

"We have had any number of water main breaks and our electrical systems are outdated," she said. "There are many days where you feel as if the zoo is held together by chewing gum."

24/7 for animals

Despite facing some tough decisions, officials at both the zoo and the aquarium said that animal care has not been compromised. None of the zoo's vacant positions has changed the way the animals are treated, Grieb said.

"When I come back in another life I want to be one of our animals," the aquarium's Ramin said.

The AZA has watched zoos and aquariums more closely to make sure their financial picture is strong and animals are not at risk, said Jane Ballentine, AZA spokeswoman. If members do not show financial stability, they are not accredited.

The various embedded costs for the animals mean the zoo has to focus more on generating revenue than cutting costs, she said.

"You know we're not like a museum where we can close for a day and save a lot on expenses because our largest expenses are for animal care," she said.

Grieb was brought on as zoo president last spring after specializing in business law, among other things, as a partner at Piper, Rudnick LLP for more than 20 years. Her business experience was a major factor in her hiring, she said.

"The board decided they needed somebody who could add some real business focus," she said. "The board felt that it was very important to have a strong business approach to the running of the zoo."

Drawing visitors

Despite financial constraints, both destinations have continued their policies of free admission for student groups with only minor modification.

The zoo was forced to cut back on the number of free chaperones from one per two students to one per four students.

At the aquarium, the program was originally sustained by a $132,000 state grant. Despite a $30,000 cut, the aquarium has been able to continue to offer free admission for the groups.

But not everyone is as thrilled with the program.

"There are way too many kids," said John Krepick, 61, a tourist from Los Gatos, Calif., as noisy children bellowed in the background at the aquarium. "We were here at 9 [a.m.] and as far as I'm concerned, it's too crowded."

To attract those that have to pay their way, the zoo also implements strategies based on the same principles as the aquarium: The animals are always the main draw; visitors just sometimes need that extra kick to get them coming back.

More than three times the projected number of visitors showed up for the zoo's "Brew at the Zoo" in May, Grieb said. The target group for that event was "the 20-something crowd that doesn't typically come to the zoo unless they have small children."

"Our animal population is pretty stable and where we get exciting new things are from opening new exhibits ... and through babies, which are always exciting," Grieb said. "And occasionally we do get exciting new animals."

When you think about new exhibits, if you're at an art museum, every time you come and look at a painting it's gonna be the same thing," she said. "But every time you look at an animal it's going to be doing something different than it did the last time you were there or it has a new mate or a baby or something."

The zoo's largest annual fundraiser is "Zoomerang," a $250 per person celebration held June 13. The sold-out black tie event featured about 70 restaurants serving a few of their specialties, several bands playing live music as the animals lingered in their cages. Last year, the event generated more than $130,000 and Grieb said she expects the final 2003 tally to top that.

While officials from both Baltimore attractions admit the poor economy has made their jobs tougher, all signs appear to indicate that their problems pale in comparison to those of others in the country.

One of the biggest and most recent large-scale failures in the industry was the Denver aquarium, Ocean Journey. The aquarium opened in June 1999 and came within days of closing last spring before gathering $1.5 million in donations and declaring bankruptcy, giving them more time to look for new ownership, according to Denver's Rocky Mountain News.

Ocean Journey officials declined comment for this story but several Denver newspapers reported visitors complained about high admission and parking fees and lack of new exhibitions. Ocean Journey met its attendance projection of more than 1 million in the first year before visitation plummeted to 44,000 two years later.

In the end, the owners were not able to pay more than $63 million in debt to bondholders and the city council refused to help with funding, the Denver Post reported.

In March, Landry's Restaurants Inc., a Houston-based seafood restaurant operator, paid $13.6 million for the Denver aquarium.

"I think our job is to make sure that we do a good job with the money that we get and to remind people that this is a unique giving opportunity," Grieb said. "And then we pray for the market to go up."

LOAD-DATE: July 3, 2003
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Copyright 2003 Boston Herald Inc.
The Boston Herald

December 15, 2003 Monday FIRST EDITION


LENGTH: 738 words

HEADLINE: OP-ED; DOWNTOWN JOURNAL; Aquarium seems adrift in irrelevancy

BYLINE: By Monica Collins

The New England Aquarium, a once-hallowed fish house, is indeed rotting from the head down.

Strapped for cash, visitors and neighborhood good will - while stripped of its accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association - the aquarium has become a shipwreck along Boston's waterfront. Last month, the aquarium acknowledged it was taking on water. Staff layoffs were announced and money woes publicly acknowledged.

On these chilly December days, the gray concrete fortress on Boston's waterfront looks more forboding than inviting. No longer do seals frolic in pools near the front door, providing free entertainment. They were displaced long ago by a large ticket kiosk.

Tickets are now $ 8.50 for children, $ 15.50 for adults, and many claim the price is too steep for exhibitions that lack imagination and vitality. Even the poor penguins appear lost, lumbering around the atrium.

Flanking the aquarium's main building sits the gaudy Simons IMAX Theater, which opened in December 2001. The place looks like a whale sculpted out of aluminum foil - grossly out of sync with its environment. Even though it occupies a prime perch on Boston Harbor, the theater blocks all views to the sea.

Reportedly, while the rest of the place struggles in a tide of red ink, the theater keeps the mothership minimally afloat. Tickets to the IMAX cost an extra $ 8.50 ($ 5.50 for children). The current bill includes such fish-out-of-water flicks as an animated Santa Claus romp and "Matrix Revolutions," the critically-drubbed conclusion of the tech-fi trilogy.

-- The IMAX is metaphoric for the aquarium's loss of direction. It was built less than two miles away from the Museum of Science theater, which has the same technology. And apparently the aquarium was undeterred by the fact that there are few aquatic-themed IMAX films.

- Through the years, the aquarium has become better known for parties than piscean pleasures. It became a hall for hire, selling its space to other organizations for fund-raisers and to private groups for cocktail galas. Former Gov. Bill Weld hosted a "Dance Your Fins Off" bash last fall to celebrate his wedding to Leslie Marshall. The renting of the aquarium is a quick-money scheme, but it has drained the living waters out of the aquarium's wholesome image.

The aquarium's biggest image-buster came when, in addition to thumbing its nose at its neighbors by building the monstrous IMAX, it also closed off its portion of Harbor Walk with its promised access to harbor views. In the name of Nemo, the place is supposed to support the sea. You'd never know that from walking - or trying to walk - around it.

In good weather, the outdoor plaza becomes a mercenary row, a clogged T-shirt and trinket bazaar. In summer, the aquarium also operates an outdoor snack shack.

The shame is that the aquarium should have seized on the opportunity to champion and promote the newly cleaned Boston Harbor, as well as feature new exhibits on the the harbor's returning wildlife. Such an effort would have paid off politically as well as marketed the aquarium's community pride. As with any nonprofit institution, money from donors flows from good will.

And public sentiment does not embrace the New England Aquarium. Last month, BOSTONCHANNEL.COM posed this question to its readers: "What should the aquarium do to improve?" There were more than 1,000 responses, most of them negative.

"Hmmm. I don't think people want to see fish swim around . . . and around . . . and around," wrote one respondent. "I stopped going to the aquarium because I was tired of nothing ever changing," wrote another. "I felt I was spending huge amounts of money to get in and found we were going to see the same thing over and over."

The discussants seemed to know their aquariums. The Mystic Aquarium and NOAA (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) exhibits at Woods Hole were cited as far more interesting than the Boston version. The consensus was that the New England Aquarium had become a sinkhole.

To survive, the aquarium must go back to its headwaters - creativity, simplicity, community. Exhibits should be engaging and prices affordable. The place should never lose sight of its original cash cows: the denizens of the deep.

One sign of recovery would be the return of those splashing harbor seals to a new pool near the front door.

Monica Collins' column appears every Monday.

LOAD-DATE: December 16, 2003
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Copyright 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

March 8, 2004, Monday FINAL


LENGTH: 1017 words


BYLINE: DAN De CARBONEL The (Salem) Statesman Journal


BODY: The Oregon Coast Aquarium finds itself at the end of a stormy few years that included a financial crunch, a felony conviction for its former director and a decline in attendance.

Eager to leave that low tide behind - especially the decline in attendance - the one-time home of the most famous whale in the world is re-emphasizing its mission to tell the story of the coast's rich natural diversity.

Once dedicated to teaching about marine wildlife, the aquarium is moving beyond the seas.

"This isn't just about the ocean," said public relations manager Hugh Dolly. "It's about the entire ecosystem along the coast, but everything has a tie-in to the water."

Dolly said that the aquarium is exploring the inlets and attempting to better tell the story of biology and life along the Oregon coast, from the fish to the tide pools and the river inlets to the vegetation.

A new attraction, all about bats, is set to open on Memorial Day. "Masters of the Night" will provide interactive displays about the myths and truths of bats and will include live bats on display.

Other planned additions include a river otter exhibit, a bald eagle exhibit and the transformation of one of the exhibit halls into an exhibit on a tropical rain forest.

It wasn't long ago when the aquarium gained world renown as the home of Keiko, the killer whale who starred in the film "Free Willy."

While Keiko rehabbed at the aquarium from January 1996 to September 1998, more than 2 million visitors made a pilgrimage to the see the gregarious orca. After his departure, many of those who made several trips to the aquarium each year visited less frequently, if at all.

Keiko's death last December off the Norwegian coast stirred the memories of many Mid-Valley residents who recalled how they were drawn to the Yaquina Bay shore to see the orca.

Today at the aquarium, sea lions and otters still frolic in their tanks, sea birds chirp and bathe in the aviary and sharks, rays and other sea life still swim circles around visitors at the "Passages of the Deep" exhibit.

The exhibit was built in the tank that once housed the aquarium's most famous resident.

Now, in place of Keiko, visitors find Pacific spiny lumpsuckers and leafy sea dragons and tufted puffins. All great, exotic and interesting, just not the stars of any recent motion pictures.

Visitors still look back at the Keiko era as a golden time. Since his departure, attendance, which peaked at more than 1 million visitors annually, has fallen to less than half that. And attendance is 10 percent below what the aquarium drew before Keiko arrived.

As skies broke clear and sunny, Barbara Michaelis of Lincoln City was treating her 4-year-old great-grand-daughter Sophia to an outing at the aquarium and a visit to the shark tank.

"We bring all the grandkids and the great-grandkids," Michaelis said. "They like seeing all the new exhibits."

Michaelis, who owns a membership to the aquarium, visits about 20 times a year. She admitted that she visited more often when Keiko was a tenant.

"He really interacted with the kids," she said. "I miss him."

In hopes of boosting interest and revenue, the aquarium has added several opportunities for groups to interact with some of the featured animals. For a fee, visitors can participate in feeding the animals and even get a kiss from a sea lion or shake the tentacle of an squid.

The aquarium also hosts regular sleepovers in the "Passages of the Deep," allowing kids ages 7 to 13 to sleep with the fishes.

Dolly said that there are no plans to turn the aquarium into another SeaWorld, with dolphin and killer whale shows or amusement park rides. But the new promotions are aimed at attracting more people, more often.

"We want people to have fun," Dolly said, "but we need to respect these animals and protect their habitat."

Behind-the-scenes tours are also now offered on a daily basis.

The need for increased revenue was intensified by financial difficulties that developed during the construction of the "Passages of the Deep" exhibit in 1998.

Initially pegged at $6.7 million, the exhibit's final bill exceeded $11 million.

Then-director Phyllis Bell applied for a $2 million loan to help cover the $4 million gap but did so without board approval.

Bell, who resigned in 2002 when the unauthorized loan was discovered, pleaded guilty last October to a felony charge of forgery and a related misdemeanor in connection to the loan. She was sentenced to eight days in jail and about a month of community service.

The resulting financial mess left the aquarium in default on its revenue bonds. It also left a budget gap that threatened to shutter the doors of the Yaquina Bay attraction, which would have put a major dent in the area's tourism efforts.

The aquarium was founded in the 1980s with an eye toward helping boost tourism and the economy in the Newport area. It opened in 1992.

The aquarium's board of directors is continuing its efforts to restructure more than $14 million in debt.

Bond holders have agreed to hold off legal action on the default of bonds as long as the aquarium continues to make attendance and revenue projections and continues to make interest payments on the more than $14 million in outstanding bonds. The aquarium's annual operating budget is $9 million.

In a related development, the aquarium sued its auditor for failure to uncover the ballooning costs of the "Passages of the Deep" exhibit.

The financial mess further hurt the aquarium by costing it financial grants and limiting the amount to spend on advertising and new exhibits, according to the lawsuit.

Dolly said that with the help of private donors and a local lodging tax, the financial situation has improved, but the aquarium can't thrive without more visitors. More attention will be given to advertising and marketing. The lack of a big-name new exhibit has hurt attendance, Dolly said

"People need to know that this isn't just a place to come once a year. Something new is coming in all the time," Dolly said.

THOMAS PATTERSON/(SALEM) STATESMAN JOURNAL: Anemones hold the attention of Joshua Lyon, 6, and mom, Shari, of Spokane at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

LOAD-DATE: March 9, 2004
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Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
The Toronto Star

January 10, 2005 Monday


LENGTH: 871 words

HEADLINE: Will aquarium plan float?

BYLINE: Royson James, Toronto Star


City officials will today announce plans to land a major aquarium in Toronto: an attraction that could boost tourism, help invigorate Ontario Place and the Ex, and end years of skepticism about such a project.

"The clear indication from the private sector is that it's doable," says Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, who's overseeing the project as head of the board of governors for Exhibition Place.

The city is to call for expressions of interest to put a medium to large aquarium on the lakeshore, between Ontario Place and Exhibition Place, about at the foot of Dufferin St.

Toronto, which owns the 4.63- hectare site, would provide the land on a 99-year lease, and the private sector would build and operate the attraction.

Deadline for submissions is Feb. 25. The city hopes to have a partner by the end of the year. Then it could take two years to get all the approvals in place.

Drawings and other such details won't be ready until the city finds a partner, but the aquarium is supposed to meet standards that call for it to be a "landmark building and become one of the city's most exciting attractions."

Toronto is one of the few large North American cities without a major aquarium. In the U.S., you can find major ones within a 200-kilometre radius of each other. Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is a behemoth. Its current addition alone is 150,000 square feet, bigger than the planned total area of Toronto's aquarium.

Preliminary study estimates the city can support an aquarium between 75,000 and 125,000 square feet, with flexibility to expand. This would cost between $55 million and $97 million to build, attract between 1 million and 1.4 million visitors, and yield an operating surplus of between $6 million and $11 million. Such an aquarium would employ between 160 and 275 full-time workers.

The city would provide "favourable lease terms," parking for as many as 600 vehicles, transit and road improvements in the area.

Diane Young, general manager of Exhibition Place, which oversees the spectacular waterfront site of historic buildings, gardens, Ricoh Coliseum and the National Trade Centre, says it's time again for Toronto to try and land an aquarium. "There seems to be a love affair from developers on aquariums," Young said in an interview. "Right now, there seems to be a feeling that aquariums are pretty good at turning a profit."

For example, a medium-sized city like Chattanooga, Tenn., is drawing about a million visitors to its aquarium and is now building a second one, Young says.

"That's the kind of aggressiveness we have noticed with respect to (aquariums)."

Ripley's, which runs several aquariums in the U.S., is interested in investing in Toronto, even though an aquarium is being planned for Niagara Falls, Pantalone says. And other developers have been expressing interest.

Today's announcement will smoke out the pretenders. The potential partners will then put forward a business case for the attraction. Only then will we know if there is even a chance of this happening.

Pantalone has been around for most of the other failed proposals to build a Toronto aquarium, but he says indications are different this time.

"People will be amazed by the responses we are going to get," Pantalone says.

Amazed? Quite likely. For about 20 years, Torontonians have heard similar claims and watched them sink for lack of money, want of a site or other complications.

From the time in 1985 that Harbourfront announced that Maple Leaf Quay would be home to a $40 million aquarium, the plans sink only to surface somewhere else around Toronto. The Eaton Centre had one proposal in 1996 . Scarborough had a 1995 plan for $90 million. Etobicoke gave Seaquarium an interest loan of $500,000 in 1998, only to see plans drown.

The CBC had a deal in 1997 to locate a giant one in the basement of the Broadcast Centre at Front and John. Didn't work. Ontario Place got in on the act, first with David Crombie in 1993 and general manager Max Beck in 1997. Neither held water.

But forces are now "aligned in a much more strategic and positive way for the good of Toronto," claims a study, to be released today.

The study, conducted by Exhibition Place to support what is being called the "Aquarium Opportunity," claims a "fresh political reality": friendly government at Queen's Park, a new city administration and a new Prime Minister who understands the importance of cities.

As well, the effects of SARS on the local tourism industry have spurred many in the city to add new attractions to boost Toronto's fortunes.

"Thus, the situation for the development of an aquarium in Toronto is considerably improved over what it had been previously," the report says.

A Great Lakes city with a huge population should be able to support a major aquarium. That may be, but the proposal will rise or fall on the economics. Does it sell? Will it make money?

Ripley's and others will get a chance to respond. Their predecessors have never backed up their talk with action. Now, they have a secure site. The city government is behind the plan. Toronto is starving for tourists. Aquariums are doing well elsewhere.

If it doesn't work here and now, it probably never will.

Royson James usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: rjames @

LOAD-DATE: January 10, 2005
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Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

May 29, 2003 Thursday Home Edition

SECTION: News; Pg. 1A

LENGTH: 1564 words

HEADLINE: If we build aquarium, will they come downtown?



David Marvin overlooks the site of the future Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola museum from a $2 million penthouse in the condo tower he built next to Centennial Olympic Park.

The park rolls down a hill in front of Marvin's building. Atlanta's two new attractions will be built in a valley rimmed with elegant brick buildings that suggest a prospering downtown.

Construction cranes will raise hopes along with girders. Finally, boosters exhort, Atlanta's urban core will have the last major draw it needs to turn back 35 years of downtown resembling a ghost town at dusk.

"The aquarium and World of Coke will be the final elements to create a critical mass for downtown to be a fun, active place to spend time," Marvin said. "The opportunity they present transcends the facilities themselves."

Successful aquariums in other cities are driving a lot of the local dreams. In Baltimore and Chattanooga, for example, free-spending tourists transformed dumpy downtowns into bustling centers for shopping, dining and entertaining.

Atlanta's promoters salivate at the prospect of up to 2 million new visitors every year. If nothing else, the aquarium is expected to give conventioneers a reason to spend an extra day --- and more dollars --- in a city that many of them flee the moment their meetings end.

Gov. Sonny Perdue adds his voice to the chorus. "This area can be a dramatic destination for people to stay longer in Atlanta," he said this week.

If the hyperbole sounds familiar, it is. Downtown Atlanta's recent past is checkered with the "next big thing" that was to save it.

The renovation of Underground Atlanta was the buzz in the 1980s. The 1990s were a whirlwind with the opening of the World of Coca-Cola museum near Underground and the decision of the Atlanta Falcons football team to stay downtown rather than move to the suburbs, not to mention the 1996 Summer Olympics, which were to make everyone want to live in the city center.

Each event was a step forward. But collectively the projects have remade downtown into the home of no more than 2,500 residents. It is not a destination that keeps suburban residents returning to events such as $3 summer concerts at Centennial Olympic Park and free ones at Woodruff Park, or packing Underground's restaurants on the way to a Braves game.

This year alone, Macy's closed its historic department store and the prominent King & Spalding law firm announced it would move out to Midtown. Last year, Georgia-Pacific scrapped plans for an office building once slated to rise more than 20 stories above Peachtree Street.

Now it's the $200 million Georgia Aquarium being donated by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus that is expected to turn the tide. Marcus will orchestrate the ceremonial groundbreaking today.

The difference this time could be the collection of several attractions in the path between the hotel district and the convention center. In addition to the aquarium and Coke museum, a children's museum opened this year across the street from the Coke site.

Linking attractions

This is a break from traditional planning in Atlanta, where attractions are plunked down with little effort to link them. Atlanta's hotel district is not within easy walking distance of the football and baseball stadiums, the convention center or Underground.

"Having the two museums and the aquarium close together is the same concept you get with a row of car dealers or a restaurant row, where the businesses feed off each other," said Ken Bernhardt, regents professor of marketing at Georgia State University. "People will be able to go downtown and park their car and do a day's worth of things without getting back in the car.

"It will help overcome the inaccurate perception that there's nothing to do downtown or that downtown isn't the place you want to be," he said.

Marcus picked the downtown site in part because the land was donated by the Coca-Cola Co. The soft drink giant had been trying to decide what to do with the 20 acres it acquired for a promotional attraction during the Olympics. Coke will build its museum next door and seek a tenant for the building near Underground.

Atlanta's planning commissioner, Charles Graves III, thinks the aquarium can provide the final piece needed to revive downtown.

Graves has previously guided growth in a city with a successful aquarium. The National Aquarium in Baltimore was conceived in the 1970s as a key to remaking the abandoned seaport's decayed wharf district into a cultural destination.

Graves arrived as Baltimore's planning commissioner in 1991, a decade after the aquarium opened. Attendance has continued to rise at all the attractions nearby, and Graves used the foot traffic to lure commercial and residential construction and renovation to the Inner Harbor.

"I think it's a great example of how one can locate cultural attractions close to one another and they feed off each other," he said of Baltimore's modern business boom.

Grunge is not inviting

Graves concedes that Atlanta faces a number of hurdles if it is to recreate Baltimore's success.

Among the big challenges are cleaning up the blocks between Centennial Olympic Park and the downtown hotel district and establishing restaurants that are affordable for average families.

These days, walking the streets is not a pleasant experience, in part because sidewalks are broken and filthy and homeless loiterers use shrubs as toilets and aggressively hit up pedestrians for cash. Few of downtown's narrow streets beckon tourists to stroll along them in hopes of finding that funky gift for friends back home.

Local visitors often find getting to downtown attractions intimidating. The nearest MARTA station to Centennial Olympic Park is a hike. Many parking lots and garages are dirty and expensive. No parking plan has been announced for the aquarium project.

"We must make it an enjoyable experience to walk around downtown and to the attractions at Centennial Park so people will be interested in walking through downtown," Graves said. "The experience of going to the aquarium shouldn't be just driving there and leaving."

Small but significant improvements have occurred over the last year or two.

Some foul streets are cleaned with hot water and chemicals by workers paid from a tax downtown business leaders have levied on themselves. The Downtown Ambassadors, sponsored by Central Atlanta Progress, ride vacuum cleaners the size of golf carts to pick up debris from streets and sidewalks.

CAP, a downtown business group, has an ambitious $30 million plan to install new sidewalks, trees, planters and streetlights. The project would link the hotel district along the Peachtree Street ridge with Centennial Olympic Park and its attractions, along with the nearby Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center. But funds are not available for the plan.

That doesn't worry A.J. Robinson, Central Atlanta Progress' new president. "This is an opportunity for all of us. The potential, between the World of Coke and the Georgia Aquarium, is close to a $300 million development/attraction," he suggested Wednesday. "We haven't had this drop in our lap in quite some time. What a wonderful opportunity to rally around a whole new way to market ourselves."

Meanwhile, Georgia State University's downtown expansion is helping to make streets feel safer.

Thousands of students trek daily to and from the main campus, classrooms and studios in the historic Fairlie-Poplar district, which lies between Peachtree Street and Centennial Olympic Park. GSU President Carl Patton believes the students and faculty are boosting the area's vibrancy. Still, the college crowds have not prompted many new restaurants to open.

Eateries, not eliteries

The lack of restaurants downtown could become a bigger issue once the aquarium and Coke museum open. Several fancy places already exist near the park and downtown hotels. But they are priced for diners on expense accounts, beyond the reach of families on a budget.

Bob Wagner, an Atlanta accountant who specializes in the hospitality trade, said the new attractions would not necessarily be a blessing for downtown restaurants. He predicts only those visible from the aquarium will thrive. Unless civic leaders can make walking downtown more pleasant, storefronts off the beaten path will not get much of a bounce, he suggests.

"These restaurants are often an impulse buy for the customer, who says, 'Gee, we spent two hours in the aquarium and had a wonderful time. Let's sit down and grab a bite before we leave,' " Wagner said.

Based on results in Chattanooga, Wagner said successful restaurants catering to Georgia Aquarium crowds would serve meals costing under $10 a person.

A little restaurant row --- priced for the pocketbook of the family-oriented crowds expected to visit the aquarium --- is slated to open as early as summer 2004 just west of Centennial Olympic Park, said Marvin, who developed the pricey condo tower overlooking the park.

"None of us can afford to eat at Ruth's Chris [Steakhouse] every day," Marvin said. "It's a treat, and we enjoy it when we can. But the customers visiting the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coke will be looking for more affordable prices."

Staff writer Maria Saporta contributed to this article.

Downtown boosters hope the Georgia Aquarium and new World of Coka-Cola attractions just north of Centennial Olympic Park will be the major draws necessary to turn back 35 years of downtown becoming a ghost town at dusk.
Map of downtown pinpoints proposed aquarium and future site of World of Coke. Inset map shows area of detail in metro Atlanta. / TROY OXFORD / Staff; Photo: An aerial view shows the new aquarium site north of Centennial Olympic Park, as photographed on Tuesday. / RICH ADDICKS / Staff; Photo: Phil Terrell, with the Grant Smith Company, puts up a mural on the fence along the Baker Street side of the aquarium site. / BEN GRAY / Staff

LOAD-DATE: May 29, 2003
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Copyright 2003 The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

August 17, 2003 Sunday FINAL Edition


LENGTH: 573 words

HEADLINE: Attendance disappoints aquarium;
350,000 visitors so far this year falls below projections

BYLINE: JASON HARDIN Of The Post and Courier Staff

With the summer tourism season winding down, attendance at the South Carolina Aquarium lags behind projections for 2003, which officials describe as a disappointing year so far.

About 350,000 people had visited the aquarium as of mid-August, which puts attendance at about 92 percent of projections, said Chris Andrews, the aquarium's executive director.

The first quarter of the year went well, he said. Since then, however, the number of visitors has slowed.

"Things took a little bit of a dive," Andrews said. "We ended up being a little disappointed."

The aquarium is not alone. Attractions throughout the Charleston area and the rest of the country have seen disappointing attendance numbers this year, he said.

"I think it's part of a bigger problem," Andrews said. "It was clear that we weren't alone."

John Tucker, the superintendent of Fort Sumter National Monument, said attendance there has dropped by about 8 percent from last year.

He attributed the drop to factors ranging from rainy weather to war jitters earlier in the year.

"It just hasn't recovered," he said.

Still, nearly a million people visit the Liberty Square area each year, he said.

"That's a huge amount of use there that you never saw in this part of town before," Tucker said.

Some aquariums nationwide have been struggling.

Denver's Ocean Journey announced plans to close earlier this year, and financial troubles led to the loss of accreditation for the New England Aquarium.

"There are some major aquariums ... this summer, they got a real wakeup call," Andrews said.

The aquarium is trying to keep expenses down, he said, but has not had to cut any staff this year, unlike previous years.

Andrews said a strong fall could help make up for the summer and, in any case, the aquarium is not in a condition similar to that of other facilities.

"I certainly don't think we're in anything close to crisis mode," he said.

Andrews said projections called for 500,000 people to visit this year. That still would represent a drop from 2002, when 540,000 visited, said aquarium spokeswoman Angel Passailaigue Postell. Attendance has declined each year since the aquarium opened in 2000.

The aquarium could be an issue in this fall's mayoral campaign. Some have criticized Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is running for re-election, for focusing on big projects such as the aquarium and the Riley baseball park.

Riley said the aquarium's performance isn't cause for concern.

"It's the most popular attraction in the Lowcountry," he said. "A half a million visitors is very substantial."

The city contributed $70,000 in the form of accommodations taxes to the aquarium this year for marketing efforts. Contributions also are given to other local attractions, such as the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Riley said he would seek to continue the aquarium contribution, although he could not say whether the amount would be more or less.

Aquarium officials are hopeful that new enticements will bring in more visitors. The aquarium just launched a four-month educational campaign called SharkFest, which includes new sharks, daily educational programs and special events.

The aquarium also is working on an exhibit called "Secrets of the Amazon" that will open next year.

Housed in the facility's changing exhibit space, it will feature exotic creatures such as piranhas, anacondas and poisonous frogs, Andrews said.

LOAD-DATE: August 19, 2003
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The mayor said he'd rather focus the city's efforts on finding a way to build a proposed $100-million aquarium downtown. The city has no specific plans, though Kilpatrick said zoo officials continue to look at the option.

Full article
DETROIT BUDGET CRISIS: Aquarium supporters fight to turn the tide

April 1, 2005


Fans of the Belle Isle Aquarium are hoping they can find a last-minute savior to ante up $150,000 to give the 101-year-old institution a brief stay of execution.

And they have two days left to do it.

"I can't stress enough, if there is someone out there waiting in the wings, if there's an angel out there, now's the time to step forward," said Sandra Novacek, a Detroit resident and member of the Friends of the Belle Isle Aquarium, a group of metro Detroiters working to save the aquarium since Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced its closure in January.

It is slated to empty its tanks and shut its doors at 4 p.m. Sunday

The money would be enough to keep it open for the remainder of the city's budget year, which ends June 30.

Group members have spent the last week before the scheduled closure meeting with city officials, holding rallies, selling T-shirts, hustling donations and keeping vigil over the ornate building designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn.

So far, the group has raised about $25,000 in donations. An additional $60,000 has come in from increased attendance as visitors flock to the aquarium before it closes. About 1,900 people visited the aquarium Tuesday, nearly 3,000 visited Wednesday, and a few thousand more waited in line for more than an hour Thursday.

But it doesn't appear those efforts will be enough.

Kilpatrick said there are no more chances left for North America's oldest continuously operating public aquarium.

"It's time to close it," Kilpatrick said.

He and other city officials say the aquarium is a casualty of Detroit's ailing finances. The city expects to face a shortfall of more than $200 million next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Officials say it costs almost $800,000 annually to operate the building.

The mayor said he'd rather focus the city's efforts on finding a way to build a proposed $100-million aquarium downtown. The city has no specific plans, though Kilpatrick said zoo officials continue to look at the option.

The more than 4,000 fish and critters that make up the collection will be sent to the Toledo Zoo and other facilities. But the mayor said the creatures are on loan and would be retrieved if the city builds a new aquarium.

The aquarium supporters question Kilpatrick's priorities: wanting to close what they consider one of Detroit's cultural gems, only to open a more expensive aquarium down the road.

"This is something that belongs to our children and our children's children," said Detroiter Regina Wilson, who marched with her grandchildren at a rally Tuesday in front of City Hall.

Supporters remain hopeful. They are hosting a $100-a-plate benefit dinner and auction tonight at the Detroit Yacht Club, as well as another rally Saturday at the aquarium.

They're selling T-shirts, flags and aquarium memorabilia, and showing up at every turn with brightly painted wooden fish on sticks -- their version of the magnetic ribbons on car bumpers that support various causes.

They've continued to meet with zoo officials, who run the aquarium, and spoke before the Detroit City Council, which passed a second resolution last week urging the mayor to keep the aquarium open longer to give supporters time to raise donations.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm even weighed in with a letter of support for the aquarium, although she did not offer any funding help.

The aquarium has become Detroit's political cause celebre, especially in what promises to be a heated election year.

Two mayoral challengers, Councilwoman Sharon McPhail and former deputy mayor Freman Hendrix, have attended rallies to show their support for the aquarium. McPhail also voted with her council colleagues for resolutions to keep the exhibit open longer.

Members of the friends of the aquarium say they will keep the donations they've raised in an account until the November election, because both Hendrix and McPhail have said they would reopen the facility if they win. If Kilpatrick wins, the friends group says it will hold an online vote for supporters to choose where to distribute the funds.

Several City Council members and residents running for council seats also have joined the campaign.

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who introduced one of the council's proposals to keep the aquarium open and marched with supporters Tuesday, said: "Why not give them the extra breathing room? And if the best efforts do not work out, then we gave it our best try."

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Posted on Saturday, April 02, 2005 - 9:48 pm:   Edit PostDelete PostView Post/Check IPPrint Post   Move Post (Moderator/Admin Only)

April 1, 2005

"....The more than 4,000 fish and critters that make up the collection will be sent to the Toledo Zoo and other facilities. But the mayor said the creatures are on loan and would be retrieved if the city builds a new aquarium...."

This is a lie. The fish are beginning to be shipped out again starting April 5th. This is without city council approval and NOT on loan, but gratis which means they cannot be retreived if the city builds a new aquarium or a new mayor wishes to reopen Belle Isle Aquarium.

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