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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes Aquarium plagued by money woes

Associated Press
 Posted 09/09i/2002

DULUTH -- The city has formed a task force to save the Great Lakes Aquarium after attendance and revenue have been about 22 percent below projections at the 2-year-old freshwater attraction.

Steep pay cuts and layoffs were expected this month, leaving the $34 million aquarium's staff a fraction of the size it was when it opened in the summer of 2000.

The aquarium is expected to be several hundred thousand dollars off its earlier projections to take in $2.9 million in 2002, which already was down about $1.6 million from last year, according to its budget.

The aquarium still has $250,000 in unpaid construction costs.

As part of the agreement between the city and the nonprofit organization that runs the aquarium, the city can take over operations if the aquarium is unable to make bond payments. The city and the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau had to pay the aquarium's annual $238,000 bond payment last February when money fell short. The city's $219,000 portion came from the tourism tax.

Aquarium officials have secured a bank loan in case they come up short again, but the city has backed that loan as well. That payment, about $240,000, is due in February.

Already at stake for taxpayers is about $6 million in bonds backed by the city and the Duluth Economic Development Authority.

One possibility would be to pair aquarium tickets with other area attractions to boost attendance such as the Lake Superior Zoo, the Omnimax and the Vista Fleet. Or the aquarium could seek a state subsidy.

Aquarium president Ann Glumac said the attraction deserves public support, like the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society and zoos.

If the aquarium did seek state money, Glumac said it probably would be to pay for the attraction's education department, which has an annual budget of about $250,000.

State Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the chance of the aquarium securing any state money is nearly zero this year. The state is facing a budget shortfall of 10 percent to 15 percent.

Glumac said bankruptcy or closure aren't being discussed.

In the meantime, aquarium officials are continuing their long-range plan to improve the attraction, boost revenue and increase community support.

They have done discount programs for families and seniors, increased billboard usage, put rack cards in tourist stops, sent weekly e-mails to local hotels about events and been more savvy in using the media to promote events and programs.

The aquarium board has discussed adding saltwater exhibits for more pizzazz, such as bringing in a shark to compare it with a sturgeon.

"Everything is open for discussion," Glumac said.

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