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Aquarium will receive more money, despite councilor's concerns

Duluth city councilors voted 5-1 Monday night in favor of giving the Great Lakes Aquarium $100,000 so it can remain afloat through another year. The vote capped a lengthy exchange between Councilor Greg Gilbert and Pat Schoff, the aquarium board ...

Duluth city councilors voted 5-1 Monday night in favor of giving the Great Lakes Aquarium $100,000 so it can remain afloat through another year.

The vote capped a lengthy exchange between Councilor Greg Gilbert and Pat Schoff, the aquarium board chairman, over the request.

Gilbert, the only councilor to vote against the resolution, argued that he needed more financial information from the aquarium board to make sure the money was being wisely spent and was necessary.

"I'm being asked to pour money down a rat hole without any information," Gilbert said. "I don't know what it's going to be used for."

But Schoff defended the aquarium board, sayingthe information is readily available to Gilbert, or any councilor.

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"The budget is as detailed as we could make it," Schoff told Gilbert. "If you want something, please ask."

Schoff also publicly asked that Gilbert take the open seat on the aquarium board, and Gilbert accepted.

Councilor Russ Stewart scolded Gilbert for not raising his concerns during the council's agenda session last Thursday, and instead waiting until Monday's council meeting.

"On Thursday, you didn't say anything," Stewart said. "You waited until Monday and tongue-lashed a volunteer board president for things you could have had on Friday."

Gilbert did not respond to Stewart's comments.

Stewart said that for several years, the aquarium has asked for $300,000 to remain in the black, and this was the first year the city was going to provide the full amount requested.

City officials also were quick to point out that the money comes out of a tax on tourism, not from residents.

Ensuring the aquarium remains open was a stipulation the city had to agree to in 1998 before the state Legislature approved providing $16 million toward construction of the $33 million facility.

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While the $100,000 approved Monday is a fix only for this year, officials are working on a long-term solution.

Mayor Herb Bergson said during the meeting that he anticipates a second aquarium task force he appointed will give a status report to the council later this month.

The panel is re-evaluating the aquarium's four-year-old plan for self-sufficiency.

Aquarium officials said they are making progress toward retiring what was once more than $2 million in debt, and another $380,000 the aquarium has to pay as the result of an unsuccessful lawsuit related to its construction. Both debts have plagued the attraction since it opened in 2000.

Last year, the aquarium was almost on track with a five-year plan to restructure the debt and become more self-sufficient by 2009, but came up short on revenue for the year, and another shortfall is expected for 2007.

The city has forgiven about $12 million in loans to the aquarium and paid more than $1.5 million for operations, including $200,000 this year in tourism taxes -- not including the money approved Monday night.

Patrick Garmoe covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5229 or by e-mail at pgarmoe@duluthnews.com .

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