Promising signs for Great Lakes Aquarium

When Jack LaVoy first came to the Great Lakes Aquarium as executive director in November 2007, he met nothing but problems. The computer system collapsed on his first day. A third of the exhibits were broken. The staff, which had gone from 100 to...

Great Lakes Aquarium revenues

When Jack LaVoy first came to the Great Lakes Aquarium as executive director in November 2007, he met nothing but problems.

The computer system collapsed on his first day. A third of the exhibits were broken. The staff, which had gone from 100 to about 20 in seven years, was demoralized. And the financial situation was so bleak there was worry the facility might close -- not that some visitors would have objected.

"When I first got here over two years ago, we had a lot of customer complaints," said Sara Kubarek, an education director at the aquarium. "There were some positive [comments], but most were negative."

Less than two years later, there are promising signs the aquarium might be headed for better times.

Despite the recession, the aquarium's revenues from January through May are up nearly 3 percent compared to the same time last year. Admissions and education income through May 2009 is up about 50 percent from the same months in 2008. Both numbers bucked budgeted expectations, set low because of the economic downturn.


The number of visitors has gone up nearly 6 percent this year compared to last, and 10 percent above expectations. If attendance trends continue, LaVoy said, the aquarium will hit about 116,000 visitors -- the most since 2005, when it attracted 124,203.

All this was accomplished despite cutting expenses 9 percent from the same point a year ago -- not including a $100,000 cut in city tourism tax support.

The turnaround has gotten the attention of the mayor's office.

"Jack LaVoy has done an outstanding job at the aquarium, and the staff do amazing things with very limited resources," said Duluth Mayor Don Ness. "It's time for our community to give the aquarium a second chance."

'Held together with duct tape'

To Kubarek, the better times aren't just apparent in the increased attendance but in what she hears from visitors.

"We very rarely hear negative comments now," she said.

Praise also comes from the City Council, charged with overseeing the aquarium's budget and direction. When fiscally conservative councilor Todd Fedora became a member of the GLA board at the beginning of 2008, he was expecting a mess. And to an extent, he said, that's what he found.


"Things were literally being held together with duct tape," he said. "But over the last 18 months I've been on the board, I've seen some good signs for optimism."

Local independent journalist and blogger John Ramos, who has followed the aquarium closely for years and has often criticized it, said he still has issues with how the aquarium is funded, but he said it's "moving in a more positive direction."

Both Ramos, the aquarium staff and elected leaders credit the turnaround largely to LaVoy, 63, a soft-spoken Duluth native who had been director of business expansion for APEX, a private-sector development group. He also was a vice president of external relations for the former Lake Superior Paper Mill Industries in West Duluth and a former Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party state representative in the early 1970s.

LaVoy said he took the job at the aquarium as "a last contribution toward the betterment of the community," but his challenge wasn't easy. The previous aquarium manager, Ripley's Entertainment, not only left thousands in repairs, LaVoy said, but thousands in unpaid bills.

"It appears that when things got tight, they let things go, and they let bills go unpaid," he said.

Making repairs

With a mountain of tasks in front of him, LaVoy looked to simplify, making it his first order of business to repair the broken exhibits as cheaply as possible.

Instead of buying new equipment in some areas, he bought it used. Instead of having custom-made television screens or DVD players, as had been required by the multi-screen image display of the Sensory Immersion exhibit -- the first one visitors see when entering the aquarium -- he saved money by buying the equipment retail.


The aquarium is only a few weeks away from having no broken exhibits. At the same time, it's adding a new one, Superior Forest, that LaVoy said will be more interactive than past exhibits -- and done on the cheap, using a partnership with the Superior National Forest, which has given money and donated artifacts for display.

Partnerships have been another key to turning around the aquarium.

Staff received a donation of fish from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to help make the Amazing Amazon rain forest exhibit. A partnership with the Field Musuem in Chicago and the Science Museum of Minnesota will produce a new exhibit next year, much of it done with donated artifacts, LaVoy said.

Instead of hiring a contractor to mow the lawn, in-house staff will do the work, saving about $5,000 a year. Instead of hiring a graphic design firm to make the aquarium look more appealing and provide more instruction at exhibits, LaVoy said college students are helping out to earn credit.

It's modest savings, but when it comes to cutting money at the facility, "there are no home runs," LaVoy said, "only base hits."

That's not to say the aquarium is out of trouble. Despite laying off three employees last year to cut expenses, LaVoy notes that payroll probably wouldn't have been met in May if attendance hadn't risen. And the aquarium still relies on a $200,000 tourism tax subsidy from the city, something LaVoy said he doesn't see ending -- nor does he want it to.

"It keeps us going in the winter months when cash flow is tight," LaVoy said.

LaVoy said if the $200,000 remains, then he can accomplish his ultimate goal for the aquarium: making it sustainable. But one challenge, he said, is out of his control.


"Our biggest challenge is our short tourist season," he said. "If we had more than 2½, three months of summer, it'd be a different picture."

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