Sunday, June 8, 2003

Aquarium bent on hooking more

Expansion plan mirrors those elsewhere

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWPORT - An aquarium is a lot like a fish. Keep it fresh or it dies.

When operators of the Newport Aquarium recently announced a $4.5 million expansion of the $40 million riverfront venue, they followed the path of similar attractions around the country. After an initial splash of business, an aquarium needs to be ready to grow - or prepare to be sunk.

Aquariums across the country are planning or building expansions in an effort to keep visitors coming back for more sharks, jellyfish, otters and gators.

The expansions come at a time when overall aquarium attendance is flat - and some aquariums are failing.

Attendance at the 33 aquariums that belong to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association dropped about 1 percent in 2002 to just 35 million, according to data compiled by the association. Attendance is also down from 2000, when it was 35.8 million.

Aquariums in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Baltimore; and Camden, N.J. are expanding with projects that total more than $172 million. Expansions also planned in Atlanta; Tucson, Ariz.; Salt Lake City; St. Louis; and New Bedford, Mass.

More important, not all aquariums are economic successes.

"A lot of cities have turned to aquariums as a tourist attraction," said Ken Peterson, the spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which has seen attendance revive after an expansion. "But if you're not conservative about your finances and attendance, you may build it but they won't always come."

Examples include Denver's Ocean Journey. The venue, saddled with a debt of $63 million, was bought March 4 by Landry's Restaurant Inc. for $13.6 million.

Then there's Duluth, Minn. The city took over operation of the three-year-old Great Lakes Aquarium in November 2002 when the facility could not make debt payments. Officials are trying to find an operator willing to take over the facility, which ran into financial problems when initial attendance projections did not pan out.

Aquariums in Long Beach, Calif.; Bloomington, Minn.; and Tampa; Fla. have also run into money and attendance problems in the last few years.

Money OK; visitors down

The difference in Newport is its aquarium continues to make money, even though the number of visitors to the Newport Aquarium has dropped by half since it opened four years ago - from 1.25 million in 1999 to 665,000 last year.

Its operators say their plan all along had been to expand within a few years of opening.

"The expansion is a very natural part of our business strategy," said David Wechsler, vice president of Steiner + Associates, the Columbus-based developer and partial owner of the privately-owned aquarium.

"It has been proven by a number of other aquariums," Wechsler said. "Additional exhibits lead to additional interest."

For example, after a $35 million expansion in 1996 attendance at the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, Va.., hit a record 692,280.

And then there is California's 19-year-old Monterey Bay Aquarium. During its first year of operation, attendance hit 2.4 million - still a record for one-year aquarium attendance. But after a decade, the number of visitors coming to the oceanside attraction on Monterey's famed Cannery Row had dropped to 1.7 million.

Then, a $56 million expansion opened in 1996 and attendance jumped back to 2.4 million. It has since leveled back off to about 1.8 million a year, said spokesman Peterson.

"An expansion improves your business," Peterson said. "If you don't change in some way, people don't see a reason to come back. You need to give them something fresh so they return."

40% more exhibit space

The Newport Aquarium plans to add 21,200 square feet of space, a project that will increase exhibit space by about 40 percent, Wechsler said. Work will begin this week and is scheduled to be completed next June.

Newport Aquarium executive director Timothy Mullican said the expansion would allow for new permanent and rotating exhibits. Annual attendance is estimated to increase by 110,000.

Mullican said the aquarium has already seen what new exhibits can do when it comes to attracting new business.

A turtle exhibit that opened at the aquarium in April and runs through November has fueled a 10 percent boost in attendance, Mullican said.

"We see that when we bring something in like the turtles - people respond," Mullican said. "They come back to see something different. It's what aquariums all over the country have done and continue to do."

In addition to traveling exhibits, the aquarium will feature a permanent display of Asian small-clawed river otters. About the size of a cat, they are the world's smallest otters and are, according to an aquarium announcement, "outgoing animals that can be found along Asia's southern peninsula."

"We'll have up to 10 frisky female otters captivating our guests next summer," said aquarium public relations manager Jill Issacs.


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