Would McMahon’s $ 85 million aquarium attract tourists and investment to Syracuse?

Syracuse, NY – Onondaga County Director Ryan McMahon presents his $ 85 million Syracuse aquarium project as over a great place of entertainment. He says it will be a major economic stimulus for the community.

“Hundreds of businesses, construction jobs, hundreds of permanent jobs,” he said in making the proposal Monday in Syracuse Inner Harbor, a former state barge canal terminal that the city has tried, with limited success, to transform itself into a recreational, residential and commercial attraction for over 20 years.

“But then you look at what that would do for this neighborhood and the potential of this neighborhood,” he added. “It will be a catalyst for the future of this neighborhood. “

But would 600,000 gallons of aquatic exhibits really be an economic winner? Some observers say it certainly could, if done right. Others question the wisdom of spending so much public money on an aquarium when local governments have other urgent needs.

A $ 120,000 feasibility study conducted for the county at McMahon’s request indicates that an 80,000 square foot aquarium in the harbor “has the potential to function successfully over time.”

The Cambridge, Massachusetts report, based at ConsultEcon Inc. with Behan Planning and Design, indicates that the aquarium has the potential – he uses that word a lot – to attract 400,000 to 570,000 visitors per year, with an average estimate of 490,000.

Peter Warren, research director at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, asked if Syracuse and the surrounding metropolitan area had the people to support the facility. He noted that two very successful aquariums, the New England Aquarium in Boston and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, are in areas with much larger populations.

“Are visitors from elsewhere in the state going to travel two hours – four hours round trip – to Syracuse to visit an aquarium that is not surrounded by the kind of additional attractions that Baltimore or Boston have?” he said.

McMahon said the county, filled with money from federal aid related to the coronavirus pandemic, will not have to borrow to pay for the aquarium. Warren doesn’t see this as necessarily a good thing, however.

“The unprecedented bonanza of federal funds sent directly to cities, counties and other local governments in New York State offers enormous discretion to many,” he said. “There is a real danger in investing in boondoggles. “

The Onondaga County Legislature is expected to vote on whether or not to include the project in the county’s 2022 budget on October 26.

With an adult ticket price of $ 21.95, with discounts for seniors, children, students and others, the aquarium would have total revenues of $ 12 million per year, the ConsultEcon report estimates. Given the estimated annual operating costs of $ 11.3 million, the facility could generate $ 735,000 in net operating income, according to the report.

A preliminary drawing shows the $ 85 million Onondaga County aquarium project in the Syracuse Inner Harbor. The view is from Solar Street. (QPK design)

If the attendance estimates turn out to be correct, the direct and indirect spending by visitors would produce an economic impact of $ 51.9 million on the county, the report said. The aquarium would be generate an additional $ 796,000 for the county government and $ 1.6 million for the state government in sales, hotel and income taxes, the study says.

In addition, he said the aquarium would provide a “new spark” for the development of the Inner Harbor, which, despite many years of effort, contains only an apartment building and a hotel.

The aquarium would also strengthen the county’s tourism industry, according to the report.

“The Onondaga County Aquarium would become an iconic institution in Onondaga County and add significantly to its ‘brand’ as a destination and a great place to live, work and recreate,” the report said.

But the report adds a few qualifiers.

To be successful, the aquarium must offer the right experiences and programs for visitors, he said, noting that some of the most popular features of modern urban aquariums are ocean reservoirs, coral reef reservoirs and passage tunnels. .

“Aquarium audiences have high expectations that their experience will be ‘fresh’ and that they have new reasons to visit,” he said.

The success of the aquarium will depend on “top-notch marketing, educational programs and operations, strong staff and an active body of volunteers and members,” the report says.

The CEO of CenterState, the Syracuse region chamber of commerce and leading economic development organization, supports McMahon’s proposal.

Andrew Fish, senior vice president of business development at CenterState, said an aquarium cannot only serve as a “demand engine” for the local tourism industry and further development of the port. This would improve the quality of life of the community.

“Jobs are increasing and people are in demand, so the more we can do to improve the quality of life here, to invest in our community, to make it a place where people want to live and work, I think that’s great,” did he declare. noted. “It’s not just the tourism opportunity that this will generate, which I think will be the case. When you look upstate you don’t see anything like that, so I think it will come from a relatively large area.

However, some have doubts.

David Ashley, co-founder of Ashley McGraw Architects in Syracuse, said the county appears to be rushing into a major investment without taking the time to properly plan it.

He noted that the aquarium exhibits haven’t even been designed yet. And judging from the concept drawings released by McMahon on Monday, it appears that planning for sufficient parking for the facility has yet to take place, he said.

“It could probably be a lot more defined than it currently is,” said Ashley, whose company designed the penguin exhibit at the county-owned Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Burnet Park in 2006. “Looks like ‘they try to run it through. “

Since no borrowing is required, McMahon, a Republican, only needs a simple majority in the Republican-controlled legislature, instead of a two-thirds majority, to approve spending. County lawmaker Peggy Chase, D-Syracuse, said he will likely have the votes he needs, even though none of the six Democrats in the legislature votes for it.

Chase said she would love to see an aquarium in the Inner Harbor, especially since it would be within walking distance of many of her constituents on the north side of town. But she said she doubted many of those voters could afford to buy tickets to the aquarium. And she wonders if the $ 85 million could be better spent.

“We have sewers backing people into basements,” she said. “We have child and family services and probation services that are overwhelmed with their workload. There are so many other things that $ 85 million could make a big dent in the repair. “

Building an aquarium in the hope that it will attract further development to a struggling urban area isn’t a new idea, but success doesn’t always happen right away.

The Florida Aquarium opened in a depressed port area of ​​downtown Tampa in 1995, with 250,000 square feet of space, 1 million gallons of aquatic exhibits and is hoping it would be an “economic engine.” for the region.

But projections that it would attract 1.8 million visitors per year were far from the start. The aquarium, funded by $ 84 million in municipal bonds, lost money and laid off staff. He had to get an annual grant of $ 400,000 from the city.

The National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning opened an arena, the Ice Palace, nearby in 1996. But few other promoters rushed to build in the area.

However, that has all changed in recent years. Construction is underway on Water Street Tampa, a $ 4 billion residential, office, retail and hotel complex – in fact, a whole new area of ​​town around the aquarium. The project is led by billionaire Jeffrey Vinik, who bought the Lightning in 2010.

“An attraction that had more than its fair share of detractors in its rough beginnings has become an engine for tourism, conservation and growth for the Tampa Bay area,” the Tampa Bay Times said in a 25th anniversary editorial. from the aquarium last year.

Aquarium attendance never reached initial projections, but fell from 650,000 in 2013 to 840,000 in 2019, before dropping back slightly below 800,000 during the 2020 and 2021 pandemic depression seasons. Roger Germann, CEO of the aquarium, said he expects attendance to reach 850,000 next year and has set a goal of 1 million in the future.

The aquarium is now financially secure. While it still receives a $ 400,000 grant from the city, this is a small portion of its annual budget of $ 31 million.

Roger germann

Roger Germann, CEO of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, stands next to one of the installation’s exhibits. (The Florida Aquarium)

“It took longer than anyone expected,” Germann said. “However, the investment was made based on what we’ve seen over the past five years here in Tampa. So it’s a success story.

If Onondaga County moves forward with its aquarium plans, Germann said its leaders should focus on connecting with the local community, not just tourists from outside the county. It is local residents who are most likely to purchase family aquarium memberships and who will provide the necessary support to the aquarium during times of downturn in tourism, such as during a pandemic, he said. declared.

“The local community that mobilizes around its community asset is really important because it has its name and its feet, or its fins, underneath, and finally tourists are starting to recognize it and come to it,” he said. declared.

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