Ocean City might get aquarium satellite National facility in Baltimore looks to expand in resort

January 12, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is exploring the idea of creating a satellite facility in Ocean City, and preliminary research has been very positive, the aquarium's director said this week.

"We're at the blue-sky, good-idea stage on this," said Director David M. Pittenger. A small market analysis conducted in September in Ocean City drew a favorable response, he said, and officials at the aquarium plan to meet with the resort's mayor and town council in the next month or two.

The idea surfaced when the aquarium began work last year on a 10-year strategic master plan, Mr. Pittenger said. That planning coincided with Ocean City's continuing search for ways to revive its aging downtown.

"The city has had in its downtown revitalization a plan for an attraction," Mr. Pittenger said. "An aquarium was specifically mentioned."

Mr. Pittenger and Ocean City Manager Dennis Dare said the idea is still in very preliminary discussions. Mr. Pittenger said he had spoken with Mr. Dare before the market survey last fall. Mr. Dare then briefed the mayor and the town council. No other meetings have been held, both men said.

Also undecided is the size and the scope of the facility, which will affect its cost, he said. No financial discussions have been held, both men said. But the idea of a satellite facility is attractive to the town and the aquarium.

"It would probably be a win-win situation, much like the convention centers are," said Mr. Dare. "The Baltimore and Ocean City centers don't compete -- we each have our own clienteles. When somebody outgrows us, they go to Baltimore."

An aquarium in Ocean City could work in similar fashion, he speculated. "I would envision us as being complementary," Mr. Dare said.

During July and August, Ocean City's population may swell to 350,000. But Mr. Pittenger said an aquarium in Ocean City would be a year-round attraction, helping the resort with its goal of increasing the number of visitors during the "shoulder seasons" of fall and spring.

Mr. Pittenger said Ocean City's coastal setting is a natural one for a facility that educates the public about aquatic life.

"It's a very exciting idea," he added. "I believe that it can work. It would give us a forum to advance our mission" of education and conservation.

He also noted the resort town's proximity to Assateague Island, with its focus on preservation of wildlife and conservation of resources.

"The next step is to do a more serious economic feasibility study" looking at the cost and the location of such a facility, he said. "We haven't had any conversations about financing -- there's a whole range of possibilities there."

The aquarium also will do a market survey that goes beyond the one done in September, which Mr. Pittenger said was very simple. An outside firm asked 500 people in Ocean City during Sunfest "five or six questions" about whether they would like an aquarium in Ocean City, whether they would visit such an attraction and what they would like to see in it.

"People loved the idea. It was done relatively anonymously -- we didn't want them to think, 'Wow, we're going to build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium in Ocean City,' " Mr. Pittenger said.

One issue yet to be addressed is a location in the resort, both men said.

"There's very obviously some interest in doing it downtown," Mr. Dare said. The city has been working for years on redeveloping its downtown -- an aging mix of hotels, apartments, restaurants and bars -- and city officials have discussed centering the redevelopment around an attraction.

Baltimore's aquarium, completed in 1981 at a cost of $22 million in public and private money, has been a key element in the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, drawing visitors to nearby shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. The aquarium this week announced that 1995 was the best year in its history -- 1.63 million visitors passed through its doors.

The aquarium takes in about $20.4 million each year. Because it is nonprofit, the money is used to maintain and improve the facility, which has an operating budget of about $19 million.

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