Sunday, July 22, 2018
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The Great Lakes Aquarium turns five
Larger view
The Great Lakes Aquarium, on Duluth's harbor, next to Bayfront Festival Park. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium celebrates a birthday Friday. It's been five often tumultuous years with unexpected expenses and lower than expected attendance. But some Duluthians think this summer might be the aquarium's turning point.

Duluth, Minn. — The people who run Duluth's Great Lakes Aquarium find themselves in an odd position this week. They have reason to celebrate. It was five years ago the aquarium opened. And just this week, the attraction welcomed its 1 millionth visitor.

Dan Odegaard and his family from Grand Rapids were greeted Tuesday by a wall of reporters and officials bearing gifts. Odegaard says he's been to the aquarium many times.

"I think it's a great attraction for Duluth," says Odegaard. "And, any friends (who) come visit us, we bring them to Duluth, and we show them the aquarium, and we show them Duluth and all the attractions here."

If Odegaard's timing was pretty good, the aquarium's timing has been notably unlucky. First, it opened late - half way through the summer of 2000. Still attendance was off the charts those first 12 months with more than 380,000 paid visitors. But then, 9-11 happened, the stock market slumped, and visits just dried up.

The darkest days may have been the fall of 2002 when the aquarium closed for a few days, reopening that winter on weekends only. It's taken a public cash infusion; a big debt forgiveness package; and new management to begin raising the aquarium from the bottom. Ripley Entertainment is best known for those "Believe it or not" museums, but it owns a string of aquariums as well.

Public Relations Director Tom Majewski says Ripley set out to stop the bleeding.

"When Ripleys took over management, we went from a staff of 90 to a staff of right around 30," Majewski says. "So we've trimmed all the fat and some of the lean to get as close to the black as we can."

The aquarium reopened full time - 365 days a year. And this summer there's a flashy new exhibit, The Abyss, about life seven miles under the sea.

There's an eerie darkness to the Abyss room - lit by the blue glow of electronic displays and saltwater tanks. And there are dozens of kids and their grown-ups; vying for a peek at the ratfish, the jellyfish, and the weird fish that glow in the dark. The Abyss is a hit.

"We are ahead of projections and ahead of last year's attendance," Majewski says. "So we're doing very well, and again, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I can't say whether it will be this year or even next year, but it's definitely there."

Others see a glimmer too. Jim Stauber is a Duluth City Council member. He was Council President when the aquarium was sinking.

"I, like many Duluthians, had doubts about the success of the aquarium," Stauber says. "We certainly aren't out of the woods yet."

But he's encouraged. Stauber says he's not sure the aquarium will ever turn a profit. It now takes an annual subsidy. But it's a big draw for tourists, and that ripples into cash registers across Duluth.

"Like many businesses, the first five years are the most difficult," says Stauber. "And I think the worst is probably behind us. And, I've heard so many good comments from folks around the state and around the country about what a wonderful thing this is. I guess overall I'm pretty happy."

Pat Schoff heads the non-profit that runs the aquarium. He's tickled that a city Duluth's size can offer what he calls "a world class facility." And he's happy that through many changes, the aquarium's retained its mission - to educate on the importance of fresh water.

"It's sort of like kind of sneaking in under the radar, you know, doing what Harry Potter did for reading for kids," says Schoff. "You know you can't go through that place without being educated about something. You know, you'll walk out of there knowing a whole lot more than you did when you walked in."

But there are still challenges ahead. There are lingering construction loans and a lawsuit that didn't go in the aquarium's favor. Legal fees could cost the aquarium more than $300,000. There's also something lacking in local support. Nine out of 10 visitors come from out of town - a number that Schoff calls unacceptable.

A party gets underway at noon Friday, with food and music and birthday cupcakes. It's a celebration for a facility that many doubted would still be afloat for year number six.

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