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Ripley's will drop management of Great Lakes Aquarium

Believe it or not, Ripley's Entertainment Inc. will no longer manage the often-troubled Great Lakes Aquarium beginning Oct. 20. In a cost-saving move, the city-supported nonprofit will try to make a go of it without paying Ripley's about $250,000...

Believe it or not, Ripley's Entertainment Inc. will no longer manage the often-troubled Great Lakes Aquarium beginning Oct. 20.

In a cost-saving move, the city-supported nonprofit will try to make a go of it without paying Ripley's about $250,000 a year to run the aquarium. Ripley's is known for bringing splashy exhibits and more visitors to the city's most popular tourist attraction that charges admission.

"Ripley's has done everything we can ask for," said Pat Schoff, chairman of the GLA board. "By no means is it a performance issue. It's strictly a money thing."

However, Schoff said negotiations are continuing with Ripley's and some modified partnership still might be reached.

"The Great Lakes Aquarium has got to look at ways to save money to be able to exist," said Mayor Herb Bergson, who appointed a task force last fall to examine the aquarium's long-term financial outlook. "Ripley's has done a great job, but the bottom line is the aquarium must be as lean as it can with tough competition for discretionary dollars down the road."

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The aquarium receives about $480,000 a year from the city for operating expenses and to pay off construction and other debts. The aquarium competes with a number of other local attractions, such as the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, for tourism tax money.

The aquarium's volunteer board probably will look in-house to do much of the marketing, budgeting and other services provided by Ripley's since 2003, said task force member and Depot executive director Ken Buehler.

"One of the things the task force was looking at was the relationship with Ripley's," Buehler said. "And the task force's feeling was that we all kind of agreed that Ripley's was needed to bring the operation in line when it was in trouble. They had the experience nationwide, the credibility and name recognition. I think they did their job; and now it may be less-expensive to hire our own executive director."

Ripley's is in the third year of a five-year contract, Schoff said. Ripley's notified the board in July that it would terminate the contract. Board members were told this would free up the aquarium to examine its options and set up new leadership, Schoff said.

Ripley's and its GLA site director, Chad Netherland, were credited with stabilizing the world's only freshwater aquarium and reducing its city subsidies by slicing staff and focusing on bringing in new attractions, as well as keeping those already there in working order.

Before Ripley's stepped in, the city partially closed the aquarium and had to take over management after it went broke because of construction delays, a huge staff and way-off-the-mark attendance projections. Experts say the aquarium, owned by the state, probably will always need a city subsidy.

When reached by phone Monday, Netherland said that Ripley's services include marketing, accounting, budgeting, new attractions, retail support and analyzing industry trends.

Schoff said the board has just begun the process of figuring out what it would cost them to do what Ripley's does. There's a chance that Ripley's could continue to perform some tasks, he said.

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When Netherland took a job this June as manager of the aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C., people involved with the GLA wondered how long the relationship between the organizations would continue. Netherland has continued to be the aquarium's off-site manager, and Jim Walker is the interim director.

"I think this probably stems from the blue-ribbon task force, and re-looking at the agreement and seeing if that's the best fit," Netherland said. "Ripley's is willing to stay, but it's up to the [GLA] board. They've been meeting and talking to Jim Pattison Jr. at Ripley's [corporate headquarters]."

When contacted by phone Monday, Pattison said that everything is now in the GLA board of directors' hands.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at

(218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at chamilton@duluthnews.com .

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