Complexity delays aquarium addition

Expansion: An Australian-themed exhibit won't be ready until at least next fall.

October 18, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Creating a slice of an Australian river canyon in the middle of the Inner Harbor is proving more difficult than expected, forcing the National Aquarium in Baltimore to delay the opening of its major expansion and miss out on the busiest part of the city's tourist season.

Construction delays and the complexity of the $66 million project mean the more than 65,000-square-foot building won't open until at least the fall of next year - six months or more beyond the original goal of this spring.

"Eventually this is going to open, and it's going to be amazing," said Molly Foyle, a spokeswoman for the 23- year-old aquarium. "We wouldn't want to rush something that's going to be so iconic."

The aquarium is the premier attraction in the city's revitalized harbor, with the highest attendance of any of the area's attractions. The others rely on the aquarium to help keep the visitors coming. When the aquarium's attendance is down, the rest often follow, businesspeople say.

The aquarium's traffic benefits everyone, said Ami Taubenfeld, a spokeswoman for Harbor Cruises. "If their foot traffic is down, it's going to affect everyone across the board."

The aquarium, which draws about 1.6 million visitors a year, saw its numbers dip this past summer, down about 2 percent from the summer of 2003, although it expects a 200,000-visitor-a-year boost from the new exhibit. A Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association survey found that attendance was down at harbor attractions about 3 percent for the months of June and July compared with the previous year. August numbers haven't been finalized.

The reasons for the slide are unclear. Wet weather is one likely culprit. Another theory is that people are more comfortable traveling longer distances three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Baltimore made an easy road trip for many tourists.

The new aquarium exhibit, "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes," is being designed to immerse visitors in the Northern Territory of Australia, with its cliffs and gorges, and rapid cycles of flood and drought.

There will be 3,000 animals, including crocodiles, exotic birds and unusual turtles such as the snake-necked and pig-nosed varieties. Many of them are already being acclimated to their new friends in a Baltimore warehouse and listening to noise to get used to the screaming kids they are bound to encounter when they move into their new digs. Meanwhile, artists have hand-carved cliffs out of concrete, mimicking the red rocks of the Outback.

The construction of the building wasn't without challenges, either. "It's in the middle of the city, and it's on a pier," Foyle said. "We're not in the middle of a field here. It's not simply an office building or a parking garage."

The aquarium has remained open during the construction, which began in September 2002, although some speculate it will be harder to get visitors to come if they know a new exhibit is imminent but not open yet. They may want to wait.

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