Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium banks on shipwreck exhibit to boost attendanceThe Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth will be a busy place in coming months.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
The Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth will be a busy place in coming months.
With the help of a $200,000 Legacy Grant from the state of Minnesota and an additional $50,000 in matching money from Duluth’s tourism tax, the aquarium plans a new exhibit exploring what becomes of shipwrecks in both freshwater and saltwater settings.
At $423,000, the “Shipwrecks Alive” exhibit will be one of the priciest in the aquarium’s history, and will replace “Masters of Disguise,” which has been on display since 2010.
Slated to open next July, it’s just the latest reinvestment in a facility that critics had all but written off as a failure several years ago.
The aquarium also plans to spend another $265,000 to turn what had been catering facilities into additional educational space. The aquarium will gain three new classrooms and a teacher resource center as a result.
All told, about $688,000 will be pumped in over the next year or two.
The pending flurry of activity represents an acceleration of recent investments in the aquarium. It will exceed the $646,000 spent on all new exhibits in the past five years, said Jack LaVoy, the aquarium’s executive director.
Jim Stauber, now serving out the final year of his third term on the Duluth City Council, wasn’t yet in office when $16 million in state bonding money for the $33 million aquarium was approved in 1998. But he recalls expectations for the new facility were unreasonably rosy.
“The projections were that it would attract 400,000-plus visitors per year, and that was probably four times larger than was realistic,” he said.
The aquarium is on track to host 125,000 to 127,000 visitors this year, said LaVoy, who noted that the facility is poised to renew its ongoing claim as Duluth’s most-highly-visited paid attraction.
He said revenue at the aquarium is running 3.6 percent ahead of last year’s pace.
Still, the aquarium is not even close to breaking even, as initial backers had suggested it would.
Each year, the facility receives a $300,000 subsidy from Duluth’s tourism tax to keep its books in the black.
“It pains me to have to dump that kind of money into the aquarium every year when we were told that it would be self-sustaining, but it’s a fact of life,” Stauber said.
The city of Duluth can’t very well turn its back on the facility in Stauber’s view.
“We have this aquarium, and we’re responsible for taking care of it. I’ve always been of the opinion that we have to make it work,” he said.
In addition to the ongoing subsidy the aquarium receives, the city has forgiven about $12 million in loans to the facility.
It used to be that the aquarium’s request for city support would come before the Duluth City Council each year, prompting an often-heated debate about the merits of the ongoing investment.
In recent years, however, the aquarium has quietly received its $300,000 annual appropriation from the city’s tourism tax without much political wrangling, and Stauber said this approach has allowed the facility to stabilize.
Much of the credit for the aquarium’s improved operations and image should go to LaVoy, said David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth and a member of the aquarium’s board of directors.
When LaVoy was hired to oversee the aquarium in 2008, replacing a previous management team from Ripley’s Entertainment Inc., Montgomery recalls the facility was in rough shape.
“We spent a lot of time going through the numbers, and they were deeply in the hole. The aquarium had a large number of accounts payable and a lot of deferred debt. Many of the exhibits weren’t working properly, and the facility’s back-office operations were a mess. It seemed like everything was held together with Band-Aids and bailing wire.”
LaVoy said he wasn’t fully aware of what rough shape the aquarium was in until he found himself at the helm of the facility.
“During the first six months, I remember launching what I called our Three ‘R’ campaign — it was to replace, remove or repair all broken exhibits,” he said, noting that 17 exhibits had fallen into disrepair.
LaVoy discovered that the aquarium had racked up $335,000 in unpaid utility bills, as well.
Those outstanding debts interfered with the aquarium’s ability to pursue grants and support from foundations and other potential benefactors, LaVoy said.
“That’s why it was so important to get the aquarium’s financial house in order,” Montgomery said.
Last year, the Duluth City Council approved a one-time additional payment of more than $300,000 from the city’s tourism tax revenue to retire those debts.
The move has paid off in the form of additional support, LaVoy said. He noted that Minnesota Power recently donated $25,000 for new classrooms at the aquarium and the same company also has provided an additional $100,000 challenge grant, pledging to match other private contributions up to that level. LaVoy said the aquarium has until the end of next year to reach that match, but it already has attracted more than $85,000 in additional donations.
“It feels like we’ve gone from just keeping our heads above water to where we can now really grow and move forward,” said Jay Walker, the aquarium’s director of operations.