Aquarium, pinched by high costs, cuts back

Expenses heavy for Australia exhibit

September 07, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN REPORTER

Reacting to higher-than-expected operating costs for its new Australia exhibit and a nationwide dip in consumer spending on entertainment, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has announced a hiring freeze and other money-saving measures to cut costs by $2 million annually, an aquarium spokeswoman said yesterday.

In December, when the aquarium opened the $74.6 million Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit, it was expected to boost attendance and revenue. But that attraction, with its kookaburras and crocodiles, apparently has not been enough to buck a national trend in which consumers are spending more on basics such as gasoline and food, and less on fun.

"We feel the pinch first," said aquarium spokeswoman Molly Foyle. "We're not groceries."

In addition, Foyle said, the cost of electricity for the new exhibit has been greater than expected, although she could not say how much.

The Australia exhibit, which was originally budgeted at $66 million, is home to 1,800 animals native to that continent, including lizards and flying foxes. The creatures live in an enormous glass pavilion that affords passers-by impressive views of red-dirt cliffs and a 35-foot-tall waterfall.

News of the budget cuts - including the dismissal of 13 full-time employees, most of whom were fired last month while the aquarium was celebrating its 25th anniversary - saddened some in Baltimore's tourism industry but was not a complete surprise.

Belt-tightening

"People are tightening their belts," said Nancy Hinds, vice president of public affairs for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

Hinds said that because the association's summer tourism report has not been completed, she could not say for sure whether the number of visitors to the city as a whole has dropped.

Aquarium officials told her recently that the number of visitors for the summer fell short of projections but that the number of tickets sold has been about the same as last year.

"When you open up a new attraction, you always make projections about how much traffic you will see, and I think that is what is actually down," Hinds said. "Actual attendance is tracking with 2005. It's not like they are having a drastic decrease in attendance."

At the Maryland Science Center, across the Inner Harbor from the aquarium at the foot of Federal Hill, the number of visitors has decreased slightly this summer. A spokesman attributed the dip to a change in exhibits, not to cost-cutting by consumers.

"Our attendance is slightly down over last year, but last year we had the Titanic exhibit, so it's not a fair comparison," said Christopher Cropper, the Science Center's senior director of marketing. "That was a blockbuster exhibit. Those sorts of exhibits don't come around very often."

Stiff competition

Competition among entertainment attractions is getting more cutthroat, and that could also be taking business away from the aquarium.

"People have so many opportunities for diverse activities," said Kris Vehrs, deputy director of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Vehrs noted that aquariums compete with zoos, museums, bowling alleys and amusement parks for consumers' entertainment dollars.

"It's a very competitive field," she said.

In addition to the hiring freeze and staff cuts, Foyle said, aquarium officials are looking for other ways to save money, including consolidating office space for its administrative staff and improving one of the main attractions, the dolphin show, a crowd-pleaser that has grown tired in recent years and has limited viewings.

She said the staff cuts mostly affected "behind the scenes" workers and those who do not work directly with animals.

The aquarium has about 250 workers. Foyle declined to specify the job titles of those who were dismissed.

"It's hard for the staff who remain," she said. "You lose your friends."

Foyle said the budget cuts would not affect the aquarium's plans to construct a $110 million animal-care facility on the Patapsco River's Middle Branch. She said construction money for the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation will come from the aquarium's foundation budget, which is separate from its operating budget of about $29 million.

The Middle Branch project has suffered setbacks that have raised questions about the aquarium's financial stability.

In May 2005, aquarium and city development officials agreed to build the facility on 20 acres of city property in South Baltimore. In exchange for the land, the aquarium said it would pay the city $8 million, but more than a year later no money had exchanged hands.

In June, after more talks and some pressure, aquarium officials promised to buy the property before the end of the year.

Foyle reconfirmed those plans yesterday.

"These cuts won't affect the Middle Branch project," she said. "We also have a capital campaign plan to get funding together."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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