Not all that long ago, any time the topic was taxpayer money being wasted in Duluth, the Great Lakes Aquarium - usually quite quickly - got tossed into the conversation. For good reason.
A lot has changed over the past 10 years or so, however. "We've really had a turnaround and found success," Jay Walker, who took over as the aquarium's executive director this month, said as the speaker at a chamber-sponsored luncheon Tuesday at Clyde Iron. "It's been amazing. This last decade has been the most exciting time."
The city was forced to take over the financially failing bayfront attraction in 2003, just three years after it opened amidst controversy over public funding, inflated attendance projections, and even its multicolored building design. Costs had to be slashed, and Ripley Entertainment was tapped to manage the facility.
It was returned to local control in 2007. With the steady and knowledgeable hand of now-retired Executive Director Jack LaVoy, a longtime Duluth economic development expert, and others, the aquarium's books were stabilized. Today, the organization is "efficient," "streamlined," and has a foundation for success, Walker said.
A year ago, the aquarium welcomed 176,615 visitors, up 8.6 percent from the year before and up an impressive 57 percent from 2008. Last year was also at least the third-straight year of attendance growth - and 2019 is trending toward eclipsing year-to-year attendance totals again, Walker announced.
"We are an attraction, and if you're going to be a tourist attraction you'd better attract people," he said.
The Great Lakes Aquarium has done that with enticing exhibits, projects, programs, and educational outreach. The first exhibits were created on shoestring budgets and by tapping the talents of aquarium staffers, Walker said. With growing ticket sales, more money could be poured into the features. Eventually, outside funding, including private grants, started being attracted, success breeding success.
"I remember when it opened 19 years ago and the controversies associated with it. And then it stumbled from the outset," Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page following Tuesday's event. "What was being lampooned locally in the paper and everywhere as something that was never going to be turned around now we see is generating a profit, is contributing to the community, and is no longer in any fashion a burden for the city, for city administration, or for the taxpayers. It has turned out to be just a heartwarming, inspiring story of success (and) of people who endured some very difficult times."
Jay Walker has been enduring the bad and now the good for 20 years at the aquarium. Before being named executive director, he was a curator and director of operations.
The attraction still receives public support, but it's appropriately from taxes paid by Duluth's visitors for hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and bar pours. And it's far from any bailout these days at $350,000 annually, accounting for about 10 percent of the aquarium's budget.
"This is a great community. The support that we've received has been phenomenal," Walker said, touting a display currently under construction that will house bald eagles and turkey vultures. "I'm just really jazzed where we can take this next."
All of Duluth can be just as jazzed - even if it means finding something else to lampoon.