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Florida Aquarium hitting stride after 20 years

From its rocky beginnings, the Florida Aquarium has emerged as a jewel in downtown Tampa, though it’s a gem that was bought on credit and still is being paid for now, 20 years after the first patron walked into the glass-domed structure to ogle sharks and jellyfish.

These days, more and more visitors are flocking to the site, which is perched on downtown’s south-side waterfront amid the Channel District and a couple of cruise ship docks. The aquarium benefits from its proximity to Amalie Arena, which packs people in for concerts and sporting events.

Aquarium officials say business is booming and boast of ever-rising attendance numbers since the doors first opened on March 31, 1995. Over the next five months, the attraction will celebrate its two-decade mark with exhibits, special events and a display of aquarium memorabilia.

“We are doing very well,” said aquarium CEO Thom Stork. “I’m very proud. We are now what everybody dreamed we would be 20 years ago.”

Attendance topped out at 750,000 last year, he said, and that’s significant because admission tickets make up 75 percent of the annual $17 million budget. Donations, grants and a city subsidy make up the rest.

“We’ve had record attendance and revenues and that’s been a trend for the past few years,” he said. “We’re on a roll right now. Over the past five years, we’ve increased our attendance every year.”

But in the early days, the aquarium’s future wasn’t so shiny. From the beginning, the aquarium was looking for handouts from the city.

Months before it opened, the city had to fork over $2.5 million to make the finishing touches. To this day, the city continues to pay $6.7 million a year on the $84 million construction debt, secured by taxpayer-backed bonds, in addition to a half-million-dollar-a-year subsidy.

Stork said the redevelopment plans now in the works for the Channelside district proposed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who owns property throughout the area, will boost aquarium business for years, maybe decades to come.

“With what Vinik is doing, the redevelopment of downtown, this whole area is going to be a destination,” Stork said. “We can just sit back and watch our attendance dramatically increase because of the critical mass that’s going to be here.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the aquarium fits with the redevelopment of the Channelside district and “offers a uniqueness to downtown that most downtowns don’t have.”

“It was visionary 20 years ago when it was established, when there was nothing there but warehouses,” Buckhorn said. “It energized and created a sense of destination for that corner of downtown. The next 20 years, it will get more exciting.’’

All this comes at a price.

The city pays the aquarium an annual subsidy of $486,000, which can be used for operating costs and capital improvements, said Sonya Little, Tampa’s financial director. The figure has not changed since 2011, but is half what it was a decade ago.

The bigger check of $6.7 million is written to the debt service on the bonds issued 20 some years ago. That number also fluctuates little, she said, but seldom is it higher than $7 million.

Those debts will be paid off on Oct. 1, 2027, she said.

The city also writes checks for the aquarium’s property insurance, which amounts to $151,000 a year, Little said.

Buckhorn said under the original agreement, the city had agreed to temporarily pay the debt service “to kick-start” the project. The aquarium was supposed to then take over the payments.

“The city was on the hook for three years then,” the mayor said. “Now we’re paying $6 to $7 million a year on the debt service. That wasn’t the original plan, but those are the obligations we now live with. It’s not like I have an option. We live with those decisions and make the best of it. When you measure it, though, the aquarium is positive for downtown and the community.”

He said the city would do things differently if the project was proposed today.

“I think we would set up a different financing structure,” he said. “There would be more requirements for private sector funding.

“For me, 20 years later, that was a valuable lesson to learn. Now, I approach every project with a jaundiced eye. It doesn’t matter what a consultant says, we double and triple check to make sure those projections are accurate.”

Twenty years ago, Rudy Fernandez had that jaundiced eye.

Fernandez, now vice president at Robert. W. Baird & Company financial consultants, was on the Tampa City Council in the early 1990s and questioned the projections presented by the consultant.

“I was very concerned about the financial feasibility of the project. I was very concerned,” Fernandez said this week. “The consultants projected nearly 2 million people per year and I, at the time, could not imagine how the aquarium could draw that large a number.”

But the argument was convincing and the project was approved.

“Those numbers,” Fernandez said, “were triple what actually occurred the first year of operation.”

Five months after it began punching tickets, aquarium officials admitted that attendance had not come close to expectations.

Relying on a 1992 feasibility study, consultants had predicted 1.8 million people would visit the first year, a figure that at the time rivaled Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the nation’s busiest. After five months, fewer than 500,000 visitors had plunked down the $13.95 admission fee, and projections dropped by 400,000.

The expectation was the aquarium would make $3.2 million profit on revenues of $27.7 million the first year. It ended up losing more than $300,000 on revenues of about $23 million.

Still, even with the debt service that will saddle the city for another dozen years, the aquarium was pivotal in revitalizing that part of downtown, now flush with restaurants, hotels and condominiums.

“I believe the aquarium helped jump start the Channelside district,” Fernandez said. “Much of the development in that area would not have occurred without the aquarium being there.”

Sandy Freedman was the mayor at the time and pushed the aquarium project through.

“The culprit,” she said. “At least that’s what some people called me at the time.”

She said the aquarium was not a mistake, she said, “even when things went so wrong right from the beginning.” In the long run, it proved to be among the more valuable assets of downtown, she said.

“I knew that if we put it there, the whole area would develop,” she said. “There was nothing there. Zero. People thought we were crazy.”

Now that area of downtown is about to take off, she said, and the aquarium “is the catalyst for all of it.”

In 1999, with the aquarium foundering, the city took over the debt service and by 2002, the attraction began paying its own bills, allowing the city to reduce its annual subsidy from $1.1 million to $700,000 and, eventually, to what it is now.

Since then, the facility evolved from a money-losing attraction to one that now focuses not only on drawing visitors, but also on marine research and education.

Stork said the goal is eventually have the aquarium stand on its own.

“The city pays the debt service and will pay it until 2027,” he said. “We receive a subsidy that, 10 years ago, was $1 million. We have reduced that subsidy by design and motivation. We are saying to the city that we’re going to run this as a business. We can’t touch the debt service, but at some point we want to eliminate the subsidy.”

The Florida Aquarium’s celebration of its 20th anniversary begins this week and lasts through the end of August. The aquarium will honor its history with exhibits and displays and offer up-close contact with “animal ambassadors,” many of which were orphaned or injured in the wild.

Eyes now are on the future, Stork said, not the past.

“It used to be passive, where you would walk around and enjoy it and go away,” he said. “Now the focus is on ‘wow’ moments; you go around a corner and there are penguins standing there or you can swim with the sharks or get backstage and take a tour.

“We are creating unique experiences.”

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