Saturday, May 31, 2003

Aquarium seeking $4.5M expansion

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Visitors to the Newport Aquarium watch Friday as a loggerhead turtle passes over a viewing tunnel through the 385,000-gallon shark tank.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
NEWPORT - The Newport Aquarium, which has seen attendance drop by nearly half since it opened in 1999, is proposing a $4.5 million expansion that could start construction as soon as next month.

The 21,200-square-foot expansion would add about 20 percent to the aquarium and would include a permanent sea otter exhibit. There would also be room for exhibits that would change periodically, according to documents filed with Newport officials Friday.

The plan is to be reviewed at Monday's Newport City Commission meeting. If approved, the project - which already has been designed - would begin in June. It would open in 2004.

Aquarium operators say the first expansion of the $40 million aquarium is necessary to boost attendance at the riverfront attraction.

"You need to stay fresh," said aquarium executive director Timothy Mullican, who was hired last August. "You need to give people a reason to come back, and you do that by expanding and adding new exhibits."

Location: Newport on the Levee, Newport.
Opened: 1999.
Cost: $40 million.
Size: 100,000 square feet.
Water: 1 million gallons.
Exhibits: 60.
Species: 600, 11,000 animals.
Animal food: 14 tons a year.
Executives from Steiner + Associations, the Columbus-based developer and part owner of the Newport Aquarium and adjacent Newport on the Levee entertainment complex, did not return several phone calls this week for comment. They are expected to be at Monday's commission meeting.

"We're excited," said Newport City Manager Phil Ciafardini. "An expansion was in the aquarium's original development plan."

A boost to attendance

Aquarium operators forecast the expansion would increase attendance by about 110,000 visitors a year, and 71 percent of those visitors would come from outside Kentucky.

The plan calls for 12 full-time and five part-time employees to be hired once the expansion is completed. The aquarium has 80 full-time and 145 part-time employees along with about 200 volunteers.

Steiner has also had initial discussions with state tourism officials about tax breaks for the expansion.

"We're expecting (Steiner) to come to us with an expansion plan," said Ann Latta, Kentucky Tourism Development Cabinet secretary. "They feel like they need to add something new and exciting. It's like the big amusement parks adding new rides every other year or so. You need something to keep them coming back."

The aquarium was one of the first tourism projects in Kentucky to benefit from the Kentucky Tourism Development Act, which allows a development to keep 25 percent of the state sales tax it collects.

Latta said she does not know whether Steiner will seek an expansion of the tax break to help pay for the addition. Its existing tax break expires in 2009.

Even with tax incentives, the expansion is expected to generate $2.3 million in state and local tax revenue over 10 years.

Winning back tourists

The Newport plan follows a national trend of aquariums expanding to recapture lost attendance.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is spending $30 million on a 60,000-square-foot expansion. And the National Aquarium in Baltimore has started work on a 62,000-square-foot expansion that will cost $35 million.

Steiner also owns the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from downtown Philadelphia. Last month, Steiner received final approval for $30 million in state and local tax money to expand the aquarium. Steiner is putting up $8 million for the expansion, which will begin in 2004, aquarium spokesman Jesse Cutesaid.

Across the country, aquarium operators say they have little choice but to expand. In the tourist attraction industry - be it aquariums, amusement parks or museums - it is either grow or die.

"The historic pattern with attractions like aquariums is that you open a new facility and in the first year or two you have very high attendance," said Robert Davidson, CEO of the Seattle Aquarium Society. That private non profit organization is raising money for an $185 million expansion of the 25-year-old Pacific Northwest Aquarium.

"But you find it's unlikely that a high level of attendance can be sustained. So especially for your local audience you need something worth seeing, and you do that by adding space and changing exhibits," Davidson said.

That is certainly the case at the Newport Aquarium.

During its first year of business in 1999, the for-profit aquarium drew 1.25 million visitors. But attendance has steadily dropped, bottoming out at 665,000 last year, according to the Tourism Development Cabinet.

However, attendance is up 10 percent this year, Mullican said. He credits the bump to "Turtles - Journey of Survival," an exhibit of 23 species of turtles that opened April 12 and runs through November.

In the tough economic cycle, other Tristate tourist attractions have also seen attendance waver. For instance:

• Since 2000, the Cincinnati Reds attendance has slipped from 2.6 million to 1.9 million in 2002.

• The Cincinnati Bengals attracted 470,000 fans in 2002, but 422,250 last season.

• The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden drew 1.2 million visitors in 2000, but 1.1 million in 2002.

• Paramount's Kings Island has seen attendance slide from slightly more than 3.2 million in 2000 to about 3.1 million in 2002.

Sharpening its pitch

Newport Aquarium operators have taken other steps to improve business, including revamping its management team.

In addition to Mullican, the executive director, the aquarium has tapped a new marketing director. Candy Federl, a veteran of Procter & Gamble, helped sell Liquid Tide bleach, Dawn dishwashing liquid and Prell shampoo during her career at the Cincinnati consumer products giant. New hires have been made in public relations, marketing and sales.

The aquarium has also intensified its marketing pitch. For instance, it has launched a high-profile effort to draw attention to its turtle exhibit. An ambitious campaign that includes billboard, newspaper and TV spots has been launched in Greater Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville and Dayton.

Finally, new relationships have been forged with the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden - the two attractions trade expertise and may do some joint promotions - as well as convention and visitors bureaus in Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Warren County.


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