By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEWPORT - If sea otters can bring a few more clams to Newport on the Levee, that would be good for the city, retailers and customers said Saturday. That's why many are hoping that a proposed $4.5 million aquarium expansion will be approved Monday by the Newport City Commission.
"It couldn't be a bad thing to draw more attention to the Levee," said Pat Harrison, general manager of the Bamboo Club restaurant. "It certainly would be a good marketing opportunity for me to try to draw those new folks in."
The proposed 21,200-square-foot expansion would increase the aquarium's size by almost 20 percent and would include a permanent sea otter exhibit. There also would be room for other, periodically changing exhibits.
The $40 million aquarium has seen attendance drop by nearly half since it opened in 1999, from 1.25 million visitors then to 665,000 last year. General admission is $16; it's $10 for children 3-12; and seniors pay $14.
Aquarium operators estimate the expansion would increase attendance by about 110,000 visitors a year. That would mean more business for the 35 shops and restaurants at the Levee, adjacent to the aquarium.
"It would affect us greatly," said Brian Merman, assistant manager of Cold Stone Creamery at the Levee.
Merman said the store, which serves ice cream, yogurt and Italian sorbet, already gets "a couple hundred" customers on a good day from the aquarium.
"The more visitors they get there, the more people to spread word of mouth about the Levee in general," Merman said.
Dewey's Pizza also gets a decent amount of business from the aquarium-going crowd, particularly when schools drop by.
"Field trips - we get a good hit," said Joe Wethington, operations manager.
However, he is skeptical about how much an expansion would help the aquarium.
"To be honest with you, I don't know how many people would go just for the expansion. It might draw the crowd that's already been there back, but I think people enjoy going to it the way it is," he said. "I wouldn't expect too much of a change."
If approved, construction could begin this month - and the expansion could be ready for visitors in 2004.
Support for the expansion was strong among most people at the aquarium Saturday afternoon.
"It's something different to do for an afternoon or to make a day of it, like we're doing," said Katie Edgington, 25, of Maysville, who toured the exhibits with her mother, cousin and son. The group planned to watch Finding Nemo at the theater afterward. "We'd come back about once a year if they had new things to see."
However, Brandon Heringer, 28, of Fort Thomas said the expansion sounded somewhat fishy.
"It's hard to justify that kind of money for anything," he said. "But I guess if it's good for Newport and makes the Levee more family-oriented, who can't support that?"
Heringer visited the Seattle Aquarium about a month ago and said that the local aquarium has more to see overall. With the additional exhibits planned in the expansion, it would really be a worthwhile trip, he said.
"I wouldn't necessarily keep going back for otters, but I'd go once or twice," he said. "Anything new is worth checking out."
Newport isn't alone in aquarium woes. Attendance at the 33 aquariums that belong to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association dropped about 1 percent in 2002 to just over 35 million, according to the association.
Patrick Crowley contributed.
Saturday story: Aquarium seeks expansion
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