Success at Aquarium no longer mission impossibleSo far this year, 2009 has been a pretty good year for the Great Lakes Aquarium and 2010 could be even better.
By: Jana Peterson, Duluth Budgeteer News
Mention the Great Lakes Aquarium to a room full of Duluthians and at least a few will mutter about the “money-pit fish tank.”
While those grumblings are not entirely unfounded, they may be out of date. For 2009, the (mostly) freshwater aquarium has a fair amount of good news to report and 2010 could be even better.
“We feel particularly pleased that this first year of the ‘Great Recession’ actually provided us an opportunity to increase our attendance over the previous year,” said Great Lakes Aquarium Director Jack LaVoy, rattling off some of the high points of the year.
• Attendance for 2009 was expected to be down 5 percent due to the recession, but instead it is up 2 percent with the last month looking to finish strong, thanks to Bentleyville. Tour group attendance is up 43 percent over last year, while educational program attendance is up 10 percent.
• Membership sales — a $70 family membership, gets you unlimited entrance for the year plus a few other perks — is up 25 percent over 2008.
• A new permanent freshwater exhibit, the “Amazing Amazon,” opened this summer, and another permanent exhibit, the “Freshwater Forest,” is set to open in six weeks.
• Events like wedding receptions, prom parties, class reunions and larger parties are on the rise and brought in $30,000 for the facility so far this year — all of them taking place during times when the Aquarium would otherwise be closed.
The view from city officials is also relatively optimistic, but practical.
“The Aquarium has been making terrific strides: getting the books in order, digging out from under all the historic issues,” said Dave Montgomery, currently both the chief administrative and chief financial officer for the city of Duluth.
In a gesture of support, Montgomery said, the city plans to allocate $250,000 next year from the Tourism Tax Fund to the Aquarium. That sum is up from $200,000 for last year, which was $100,000 less than the year before that.
A little background for those who complain that the Aquarium is wasting their tax dollars. The Tourism Tax Fund comes from different tourism taxes and is used to support places like the DECC, Lake Superior Zoo, Spirit Mountain and the Depot as well as Visit Duluth, the city’s convention and visitor’ bureau. The money in the Tourism Tax Fund cannot legally be used for non-tourism related purposes, although the city reimburses its General Fund for some tourism-related expenses and services provided by city staff.
“They may never reach the point where visitor money pays all the costs, but the Aquarium is a destination: for people in the region and from the Twin Cities,” said Jim Stauber, long-time city councilor. “And while they’re here, they’re spending money in our restaurants, shops and gas stations. … Maybe building the Aquarium wasn’t the best decision, or maybe in 10 years we’ll say that it was, but it is becoming less of a burden and more of an asset to the city every day that goes by.”
LaVoy explains that geography is also a factor, one that’s tough to change.
“We have about a three-and-a-half month tourist season,” LaVoy said. “If we could just add a month to that season — it could make a world of difference.”
Reality means wearing many hats
It hasn’t been easy, however, nor is the battle to make the Aquarium self-sustaining likely to be over anytime soon. However, LaVoy and his staff have stopped the downward slide that marked the facility’s first few years of operation, and the momentum is moving forward again.
“There were a lot of big dreams [when the Aquarium opened],” said Sarah Erickson, education director. “While I think the spirit of value that a place like this offers hasn’t changed …
“We’ve come to terms with a more realistic vision of who we are and what we can do,” said LaVoy, jumping in to finish the thought.
It’s not that the Aquarium is doing less, says LaVoy. In fact, it’s doing more.
In the past year it hosted more events than ever (including the HOG motorcycle rally when 21,000 bikers came through), and became a customs clearinghouse for cruise ship passengers. The ships paid $1,500 a visit for that service, which took place in the morning before the Aquarium opened.
“It was a unique experience for the passengers,” said LaVoy, explaining that many of the older passengers would disembark in their dinner jackets and nice dresses. “They’d say, ‘I can’t believe we’re clearing customs in a museum.’ Some of them would even stay for the tour.”
Add those new roles to a staff that includes 18 full-time and five or six part-time members (from a high of about 75 full-time and 25 part-time staff), and you’ve got people wearing a number of different hats.
“That creativity … is such an essential part
of who we are as an organization right now,” Erickson said. “We try to look in broad ways how we can meet our mission. One way is to be financially secure, so [doing customs for the cruise ships] applies and the cruises also increase people’s appreciation of the Great Lakes.”
Making the Aquarium special
At 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, most of the Aquarium’s guests are sitting on a couple benches in front of a two-story fish tank filled with native fish like brook and lake trout, lake sturgeon, burbot and walleye as well as introduced species such as Kamloops and rainbow trout, brown trout and salmon.
Two divers in wetsuits float down from above, each holding a baggie full of fish. A huge lake sturgeon slides over one of the diver’s heads, in a fishy embrace, looking for another snack.
“If you took a scoop of water the size of this building out of Lake Superior, how many pounds of fish do you think you would find?” asked educator Jillian Godfrey.
Guesses were volunteered in the tons: “One ton,” “five tons,” “half a ton maybe.”
“Two pounds,” was the correct answer.
It was a fascinating presentation, even for folks who make their home here alongside Lake Superior.
While funding is an issue often associated with the Great Lakes Aquarium, ultimately, the mission of the Aquarium is much loftier than simply making money or drawing tourists to Duluth. As stated on the Web site, its mission is to “capture the wonder and excitement of the Lake Superior, inspire responsibility for the world’s large lakes and fresh water and create understanding of their value.”
“We try to give our guests a more human perspective on things,” said Erickson, adding that her staff mix with guests and present scheduled programs like Wednesday’s “Isle Royale dive show.”
But the education programming at the Aquarium goes way beyond the
day-to-day interpretive programs. They offer school group onsite programs, field classes, homeschool groups and outreach classes in schools, youth centers and outdoor festival settings. Some of the outreach programs are free; others charge a fee.
LaVoy gets a lot of credit from city officials for helping turn the Aquarium around. In turn, LaVoy gives his staff a lot of credit.
Under Erickson, educational partnerships and
visits are on the rise, and she is the one behind the tour group increase as well.
Another star staff member is Alisha Wicklund, who coordinates the wedding parties and other events held in the evening hours at the giant facility.
“It’s just such a unique facility,” said Wicklund, noting that the facility is already booked every Saturday in 2010 from June through Sept. 25. “Think about it: You can either rent a square reception hall, or you can rent this entire facility, with the otters and the water wall. ... It’s definitely something people will always remember.”
The prognosis is good
If 2009 was a pleasant surprise, 2010 looks to be even better, said LaVoy.
“We’re proactive,” he said. “We anticipate opportunities and challenges. We try to minimize the challenges and exploit the opportunities.”
To illustrate the “opportunity” part of that sentence, LaVoy need only point in the direction of the massive Bentleyville light display on the doorstep of the Aquarium, separated only by a parking lot. In addition to more parking revenue ($4 a car) in what is traditionally a slow month, the Aquarium is also staying open an hour later with reduced admission rates on weekend nights through Dec. 27.
But Bentleyville is this year. Next year LaVoy is looking forward to the return of the Tall Ships, more cruise ship passengers and two new exhibits, including the Freshwater Forest and another one that’s still under wraps.
“We’ll keep the best of our Seahorse Secret and add an equally fascinating saltwater creature,” he said. “We’re also thinking long-term, working on a major vision that involves our Origins display. … There are a lot of exciting stories to tell that aren’t being told.”
News to use
In conjunction with Bentleyville, the Great Lakes Aquarium is extending its holiday hours Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 23. The last ticket will be sold at 7 p.m. and the aquarium will stay open until 8 p.m. those nights. Holiday discount tickets prices are as follows: Adults and seniors $9, children 3-17 pay $5 and children under 3 get in free.
Normal hours and admission prices are:
Open 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. seven days a week, with the last ticket sold at 6 p.m., open until 7 p.m.
Adult tickets are $14.50, Children 3-17 pay $8.50 and Seniors 62 and older pay $11.50. Free for children under 3.
Family memberships start at $70; individual memberships start at $35 and provide unlimited entrance for a year, among other things. See www.glaquarium for more.
Daily program schedule
(except for Wednesdays)
11 a.m. Isle Royale revealed
12:30 p.m. River otter feeding
2 p.m. Stingray snack time
4 p.m. Creature Feature
11 a.m. Baptism River Fish Feeding
12:30 p.m. River otter feeding
2:30 p.m. Isle Royale dive show
4 p.m. Creature feature