By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEWPORT - It's official: Mammals will be the next big draw at the Newport Aquarium. So much so that the $4.6 million aquarium expansion unanimously approved Monday night by Newport City Commission will feature a permanent home for a group of Asian small-clawed otters. There will also be room for traveling exhibits that are designed to keep people coming back to the attraction just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati.
"People tell us they like mammals because they like playful and active," said David Wechsler of Steiner + Associates, the Columbus-based company that developed the $40 million aquarium as well as the adjacent $215 million Newport on the Levee entertainment complex.
"And these otters are very playful."
Work on the expansion, the first since the aquarium opened in May 1999, will begin next week and take a year to complete. The project will add 21,200 square feet to the 100,000-square-foot aquarium and increase exhibit space by about 40 percent, Wechsler said.
In addition to housing new rotating exhibits that will stay at the aquarium for 12 to 18 months, the expansion includes new space to host private events, such as corporate meetings, parties and community gatherings.
"It's a great project," said Newport Commissioner Jan Knepshield. "I'm glad to see you moving forward."
The expansion will be just west of the existing facility.
No public tax dollars from the city or the state will be used. But Steiner has filed an application to receive a tax break under the Kentucky Tourism Development Act. Under the act, tourist attractions can keep 25 cents of every $1 generated in sales tax for 10 years.
Wechsler said the tax break was "very important" to Steiner undertaking the expansion.
Kentucky House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, one of the original sponsors of the tourism act, attended Monday's meeting and said approval of the tax incentive is likely.
"This is just a continuation of what has been a very successful project, and the kind of project we wanted to attract when we passed the Tourism Development Act," Callahan said.
When it opened in 1999 the aquarium was the first project to receive the tax break under the act.
Attendance has dropped from 1.25 million in 1999 to 665,000 last year
But Wechsler said Steiner is happy with the business generated by the project and maintained it is making money, though he would not release those figures.
He also said the expansion was a part of the original plan.
"We're very happy," Wechsler said. "All aquariums start off with a bang and a very, very high attendance, and typically can go anywhere from 40 to 70 percent down off that number after that first year.
"We fully expected a drop like that," he said. "But the expansion is not at all a reaction to the attendance. In essence, building the expansion is part and parcel of what all attractions need to do."
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