Aquarium pins hopes on sea horse exhibit

Julie Hoffman and her son, Nicholas, 5, stared intently at the pregnant sea horse, knowing its baby might pop out any second. "You can see the head," her son shouted. After coming with his class a few weeks ago, Nicholas was back with mom in tow....

Julie Hoffman and her son, Nicholas, 5, stared intently at the pregnant sea horse, knowing its baby might pop out any second.

"You can see the head," her son shouted.

After coming with his class a few weeks ago, Nicholas was back with mom in tow. He just had to see the sea horses a second time, Julie Hoffman said. But she also left impressed.

"I've never seen a real sea horse," the Duluth woman said.

"Seahorse Secrets" has aquarium officials eyeing a strong 2007 season in what might also include some stormy seas.


"Our expenses are as low as they've ever been," said aquarium director Chad Netherland. "Our attendance is up. Things are good. We've just opened a new show. It's all positive at this point."

That's why Netherland said now is a good time for him to move on. Ripley Entertainment Inc., which runs the aquarium, is reassigning him in the next few months to its aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Someone else from Ripley's will take over the Duluth post, he said.

On May 26, the opening Saturday of "Seahorse Secrets," 1,054 people walked through the front doors, Netherland said. On that same Saturday of Memorial Day weekend a year before, 334 people attended the second year of "The Abyss."

"We're running ahead of schedule on a day-by-day figure, for sure," he said.

Attendance this year is expected to be 125,000, slightly higher than last year's 124,000 figure. But Netherland said he hopes eventually to boost attendance to 135,000.

Regardless of how good ticket sales are, however, 2007 will undoubtedly be a pivotal year.

A judge ruled in 2004 that the aquarium had to pay $346,060 to two firms that worked on the building, after it unsuccessfully sued the firms. Lawyers in that case are still hashing out how the aquarium is going to pay that tab.


Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit between the aquarium and another construction company is pending in court.

Both lawsuits are linked to construction problems with the building.

And at the end of June, Mayor Herb Bergson's 10-member "blue ribbon mission assessment team" will release its report on the aquarium's long-term financial prognosis.

"Basically, we were taking a look at how much progress they've made since the report was made January of 2003," said Jack H. LaVoy, chairman of the assessment team. His group also will make recommendations for the aquarium to improve its financial situation.

After opening in 2000 and going broke two years later, the aquarium has a $1.65 million budget for this year -- half the size of the budget when it opened.

Much of the budget decrease came by cutting the staff from 60 people in 2000 to 20 now.

"We're understaffed, for sure," said Patrick Schoff, the aquarium board chairman. "I know that everybody could use one more staff member."

Despite thin numbers, the staff assembled the entire sea horse exhibit themselves instead of contracting with an outside firm.


Netherland said much of the cost of these kinds of exhibits springs from the tanks and tubes that go into circulating the water and keeping the animals healthy and happy. One tank alone can cost $100,000. Because the aquarium was able to reuse all the $350,000 equipment for the "Abyss" exhibit, putting on "Seahorse Secrets" cost only $30,000.

"It's kind of nice that we can do something in-house that is on par with a professionally produced show," Netherland said.

In addition, to help the bottom line, the staff instituted a range of additional money-saving or earning ventures.

The facility now can be rented out for weddings, birthday parties and other private events, which accounts for another 5 percent of annual revenue for the company.

Like every other Ripley's facility, the aquarium is now open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day of the year, including holidays.

Tomasz Majewski, director of marketing, said staying open on days like Thanksgiving and Christmas turns out to be extra profitable, because families often are looking for things to do.

And anyone scuba-certified can pay to swim with and feed the fish for $99.

Just getting advice on how to more efficiently heat the building saved another $30,000, Netherland said.


Despite the increased income, the city still provided $300,000 of the aquarium's operating budget this year from the city's tourism tax fund. The rest of the aquarium's budget comes from ticket sales, memberships, grants and donations.

But getting an infusion of cash isn't abnormal for aquariums, because they are primarily educational institutions, Netherland said. Nearly all aquariums around the country rely on some sort of outside financial help, whether private or public, he said.

"Part of the aquarium's struggle, I think, has been that people may have either assumed that it would be self-supporting, or money-generating, or they were told that," Schoff said.

A 2005 Association of Zoos and Aquariums survey, however, found that out of 30 aquarium-only accredited institutions, 26 did not get any help from the public to cover its annual tab. The Great Lakes Aquarium is not accredited by the AZA.

"By far, most of them do not [receive tax help], according to our survey information," said Steve Feldman, senior vice president with the AZA.

For now, aquarium officials are reveling in a new exhibit sure to draw crowds, because there's nothing like it in the state.

"If you look at that place, that particular exhibit, it wouldn't be out of place at any major showplace. It's a first-class, world-class exhibit," Schoff said.

PATRICK GARMOE covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at


(218) 723-5229 or at .

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