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Published September 30, 2013, 09:36 AM

Duluth aquarium to feature shipwrecks, add space

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — The Great Lakes Aquarium is hoping an ambitious and expensive new exhibit on shipwrecks will catch more visitors.

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — The Great Lakes Aquarium is hoping an ambitious and expensive new exhibit on shipwrecks will catch more visitors.

The aquarium's "Shipwrecks Alive" exhibit will be one of the costliest in the aquarium's history, at $423,000, when it opens next summer. The aquarium is using a $200,000 Legacy Grant from the state of Minnesota plus $50,000 from a city tourism tax to help fund the exhibit.

The aquarium also plans to spend another $265,000 to transform catering facilities into educational space — three new classrooms plus a teacher resource center.

The flurry of spending accelerates a trend of investment in the aquarium, whose critics had written it off a few years ago as a failure, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

Executive director Jack LaVoy said the aquarium is on track to attract 125,000 to 127,000 visitors this year. LaVoy said revenue was 3.6 percent ahead of last year's pace.

But the aquarium isn't close to breaking even. Visitor projections were much higher when the $33 million aquarium was approved in 1998. The aquarium now gets a $300,000 subsidy each year from Duluth's tourism tax to stay in the black.

Jim Stauber, a City Council member, said it's painful to have to provide that support but called it "a fact of life."

"We have this aquarium, and we're responsible for taking care of it. I've always been of the opinion that we have to make it work," he said.

Aquarium managers have worked hard to clear outstanding debts to make it easier to pursue grants and support from foundations and other benefactors.

LaVoy said it's working. He said Minnesota Power recently donated $25,000 for new classrooms at the aquarium and the same company also has provided an additional $100,000 challenge grant, pledging to match other private contributions up to that level. LaVoy said the aquarium has until the end of next year to reach that match, but it already has attracted more than $85,000 in additional donations.

"It feels like we've gone from just keeping our heads above water to where we can now really grow and move forward," said Jay Walker, the aquarium's director of operations.

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