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Sink or Swim?: Duluth's New Aquarium Is Ready To Open
By Bob Kelleher
July 28, 2000
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The Great Lakes Aquarium is the nation's first all fresh-water aquarium with displays of fish, turtles, birds and other wild creatures. Supporters have high hopes they can overcome attendance stagnation that's hit other Minnesota aquariums.

There's plenty of life among the aquarium's displays, with three massive tanks holding 120,000 gallons of water to recreate a small piece of Lake Superior around Isle Royale. There are 19 smaller tanks, as well as shore birds, frogs, snakes and turtles.
(MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
FROM THE OUTSIDE, the Great Lakes Aquarium is, well, striking. It's an imposing blue building, punctuated with angular walls of green and red. Inside, the building is much less polished, in fact it's rather raw. Like a waterfront warehouse, it has bare concrete floors and open beams. Designers combined the rough edges of a factory or warehouse with the natural colors of Lake Superior's rocks and forests.

Once inside, visitors are swept up an escalator past a broad wall of water, through a rolling video show and air that carries the scent of lake water and pine trees.

There's plenty of life among the aquarium's displays, with three massive tanks holding 120,000 gallons of water to recreate a small piece of Lake Superior around Isle Royale. There are 19 smaller tanks, as well as shore birds, frogs, snakes and turtles. A family of otters plays in Otter Cove, a recreation of a spot on Canada's Lake Superior Shoreline.

"We actually went out to Otter Cove last fall and cast rubber molds; latex mold; of pieces of rock out there," explains David Lonsdale, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Aquarium. "And that's all real Otter Cove; it's the same thing."

Lonsdale comes to Minnesota from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, where he served as deputy director for 17 years. He's supervised every detail of construction in Duluth, which was still underway just days before opening. Lonsdale lives for the details. Right down to the plant species in the wall murals behind the aviary and a pre-settlement Chequamegon bay display.

"It's a very expensive thing to do that," he says. "That's what makes the exhibit here so, so special, is most museums have gone away from that kind of detail. Not because they don't like to do it, but because they haven't put the money into it."

Lonsdale wants visitors to immerse themselves, almost literally, in the Great Lakes Aquarium. There are 30 interactive exhibits, including one that lets kids pilot a cyber ore boat into Duluth's harbor.

There are high hopes the large fresh water tanks and exhibits will draw large numbers of paying visitors. Promoters predict more than 400,000 in the first year. That's nearly as many as go to Duluth's single most popular attraction, the Army's Corps of Engineer's Marine Museum, which is free.

"This is going to be quite, quite a place," Lonsdale said. "We know that we have five million tourists going by this area. We think that we're going to be able to get a lot of them to stop."

The aquarium boosters point to how the facility can overcome seasonal drawbacks. Long after the North Shore's Baptism River turns to winter ice, it's replica will still roll through rocky rapids in the Great Lakes Aquarium.

Ann Glumac chairs the Great Lakes Aquarium board. She says off-season attendance will be boosted by schools. The aquarium is run by the Lake Superior Center, which has a decade of experience teaching area kids about the region's fresh water, geology and culture.

"We have a tremendously strong educational program. More than 50,000 students have already been served by the Great Lakes Aquarium, without a facility," Glumac said.

Promoters are confident of success, despite the struggles of other regional aquariums. Both Underwater World at the Mall of America, and Discovery Bay at the Minnesota Zoo, fell short of their attendance projections. Underwater World eventually sought bankruptcy protection, while Discovery Bay sought help from the state Legislature.

Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium was built with a combination of public and private money, including $16 million from the State of Minnesota. Glumac says the aquarium's $4.4 million debt to the City's economic development authority will be repaid as the aquarium turns a profit.

"And, where some of the other facilities have gotten into trouble, is they have a monthly mortgage payment, if you will, that they have to meet regardless of what their income was. And, we don't have that problem," Glumac admits.

The aquarium's location should help, within sight of Interstate 35, adjacent to the city's waterfront and Bayfront Park. It's easily within walking distance of the retired ore ship, William A. Irvin, an Omnimax theater and the popular Canal Park district, with it's shops, hotels and restaurants. Visitors can watch ships and the famous aerial lift bridge from the aquarium's windows and outdoor observation decks.

Attraction's consultant Harrison Price studied the idea of a Duluth Aquarium more than a decade ago. He thinks it has great potential.

"That North County is very strong tourist county; the setting on the lake is beautiful and it's close to Minneapolis which is one of the great regional centers of America," Price stated. "We gave it a positive nod when we studied it 15 years ago."

The Duluth Visitor and Convention Bureau's Terry Mattson predicts the newest tourist attraction will pump about $5 million a year into local hotels, restaurants and other attractions. Mattson expects the Great Lakes Aquarium to be popular with tourists and locals.

"It's a lot more than just a fish tank, as some people have dubbed it," Mattson said.

Organizers have been pushing to be ready by Saturday's opening. There will be fish in all the tanks, although more will be added over the next few weeks as adjustments are made to tank filters and water acidity levels.