Bill would put aquarium in UMD's control

Legislation that would hand Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium over to the University of Minnesota has been introduced again in the Minnesota Legislature.

Great Lakes Aquarium
The Great Lakes Aquarium, which opened in 2000, has struggled to consistently generate enough visitors to remain profitable. (2009 file / News Tribune)

Legislation that would hand Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium over to the University of Minnesota has been introduced again in the Minnesota Legislature.

But don't expect much action soon: Even the bill's sponsor doesn't expect it to pass this year. The aquarium's management says it's doing fine. And it's not clear if UMD even wants the place.

State Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, introduced SF 72 and SF 73 Thursday at the Capitol to dissolve the state-sanctioned authority that owns the building and property. The bills then call on the state to give the city of Duluth money to re-pay the remaining bonds, about

$1 million as of next month, before the university takes over ownership and operations with no debt.

But the price tag will raise a red flag in a Legislature facing a $6.4 billion shortfall for the coming two-year budget.


"I don't expect it to go anywhere this year because of the fiscal situation. But that doesn't mean we don't introduce bills to talk about good ideas down here,'' Reinert told the News Tribune on Thursday from his office in St. Paul. "The aquarium is a great asset for Duluth, and it's getting by (financially) at the current time. But I'm concerned about the long-term sustainability and whether they can keep up with needed repairs and improvements in the future.''

Reinert introduced identical bills, which failed to advance, while serving in the House last year.

Reinert said the move will offer long-term stability for the sometimes cash-strapped education and tourism center on Duluth's harborfront. Built for

$33.8 million in 2000, it has struggled to consistently attract visitors and make ends meet. It's now managed by a private, nonprofit organization.

In addition to the bond payments, the city also gives the aquarium an operational subsidy of up to $300,000 in some years. Last year's subsidy was $250,000, taken from the city's tourism tax revenues.

City officials would like to be free of those payments.

"I think it could be a powerful and beneficial partnership,'' Duluth Mayor Don Ness said of transferring ownership to the university. "The aquarium has been doing well in recent years under (executive director) Jack LaVoy's leadership. Bringing the research capabilities and resources of the university could be an important boost to the mission.''

Added role for aquarium,


*evenue for university

Reinert said university ownership and direction would give the aquarium a dual mission -- research and education as well as tourism. He said it would be a natural addition to an already strong Lake Superior theme at UMD that includes the Large Lakes Observatory, the Natural Resources Research Institute, the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program and the school's other connections to environment study and the Lake Superior ecosystem.

With the mortgage paid, UMD then could use revenue from admission and rentals to support operations and make improvements, Reinert said. One option, he said, would be to leave current attractions in place and managed by the current nonprofit while UMD would move into other areas for research.

While the legislation officially hands the aquarium to the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents, UMD probably would manage the facility, much as they do the Glensheen mansion.

"The concept is intriguing to me, and certainly there are some interesting possibilities,'' UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said. "But the debt isn't the only issue. We are in some very tight fiscal times right now and we couldn't take on anything that might have any operational deficit. And it would cost something to bring the building up to (university) building codes.''

After changing management, mission and marketing often in recent years, aquarium management says it's doing just fine without the university.

LaVoy said the facility invested $100,000 on three new exhibits in 2010 and drew 128,000 visitors, a 10 percent increase from the previous year.

"We had a fantastic year in 2010, the second-best year since 2002,'' LaVoy said. "We're on the verge of really taking this (the aquarium) to the next level, hiring a development director to seek private funding and remodeling our second floor to make more classroom space."


The bill doesn't yet have a sponsor in the House. Reinert said he hopes to get a hearing in the Senate Higher Education Committee in coming weeks.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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