At aquarium, seeing Australia has to wait till fall

Exhibit's opening delayed as its cost escalates

August 04, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Four years ago, when National Aquarium officials first proposed a new Australia exhibit, they anticipated that hundreds of thousands of Inner Harbor tourists would be spending this summer enjoying the crocodiles, exotic birds and turtles native to the outback's Northern Territory.

What they didn't anticipate was their struggle to create a setting unlike anything ever displayed at the aquarium, nor the need to strengthen an aging pier enough to hold a concrete river canyon.

With the summer winding down, that has meant that the largest expansion in the aquarium's 24-year history has missed Baltimore's busiest tourism season and officials' original budget estimates, and is past its spring 2005 opening by at least six months and millions over budget.

So, long after the other workers have left for the day, designer Allan Sutherland stands atop a ladder in the unfinished exhibit, dabbing black paint on a fake tree limb to give it a charred appearance, as though a fire had swept through the re-created terrain. Next week, officials hope to announce their latest estimated opening date for the exhibit, probably late this fall.

"If this were the 15th Australian river gorge, we'd know a bit more," said Jack Cover, general curator. "It has to be right for the animals and for all the trouble we're going into."

But that attention to detail - along with many other unanticipated factors - has cost the aquarium. The project's cost has escalated steadily since 2001, and the delay means another year before an expected boost of 200,000 to 400,000 visitors. Forty-nine percent of the aquarium's revenue comes from the gate, according to officials, with much of the rest coming from grants and private contributions.

Put at $88 million in 2001, the price of the aquarium's overall master plan has increased to more than $110 million, according to state legislative documents. The exhibit alone - which includes a partnership with the Discovery Channel, the aquarium's largest corporate deal - is expected to cost $71.2 million, up from the original estimate of $66 million. The difference has been made up in a variety of ways, according to aquarium officials.

"What we're looking at is that delays cost money. That's universally true," said spokeswoman Molly Foyle. "It's tweaking and adjusting and making sure the exhibit is safe. It's really not work we wanted to be doing when animals are in the space."

Before adding any crocodiles or birds, officials had to stabilize the aging Pier 3 to accommodate the 7,750 tons of concrete used to carve out a slab of an Australian river canyon. Construction crews, plumbers and electricians worked to establish the underground infrastructure after 122 steel pipes were driven into the bedrock to reinforce the area under the exhibit.

From there, officials say, they encountered problems such as delays in shipments and weather-related issues. They had to employ a rock-climbing specialist who could scale the landscape to work on the heating and air-conditioning units, and a 3,000-pound tree took more than five hours to lift into place.

The difficulty of getting to the aquarium hasn't deterred visitors, who have to navigate fenced-off walkways amid pounding jackhammers. The aquarium has remained open throughout the construction and has seen attendance on par with that of last summer, Foyle said. But the 2004 number was down 2 percent from 2003.

The attendance figures could be largely attributed to the Inner Harbor's strong tourist season, said Nancy Hinds, vice president for public affairs for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. A few large conventions - as well as the opening of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture - and the Sports Legends museum, have contributed.

"It's not as if the city has shut down," Hinds said.

Standing in the glass-encased exhibit recently near an empty fish tank, Cover said most problems stem from perfectionism - striving for an impressive look for visitors and acceptable conditions for the animals who will soon call the exhibit home.

"We're spending all kinds of hours here, just staring at tanks when we should be home getting sleep," said Sutherland, who compared working on the project to working on the model zoos he made as a child.

The exhibit is a mix of real and fake scenery. The rock canyon is a chunk of concrete blasted into different shapes. It's hand-carved and painted by artists from CemRock, an Arizona-based builder of naturalistic environments. Visitors will be hard-pressed to determine the difference between the burnt twigs and fake ones modeled after branches that aquarium designers set on fire at Patapsco Valley State Park.

Foyle said the animals - who are being held in a warehouse - will start being brought in next month, giving them time to adjust to their new home before the exhibit is open for visitors. The bats, which have to be left undisturbed for three weeks to become acclimated, will be brought in first.

The addition will also become the main entrance to the aquarium. To get there, visitors will walk through an outdoor park featuring Chesapeake wildlife and plants. Once inside, they'll encounter a 35-foot-high waterfall on their way to the third-story exhibit.

The delays, however, could put some unessential projects on hold, and budgets have been scaled back to save money.

"Every little thing counts in getting this exhibit to perfection," Foyle said. "We're a conservation organization, so we're used to that."

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