Longtime National Aquarium director Pittenger says he'll step down

May 26, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Over nearly three decades with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, David Pittenger has been credited with helping steer the institution from a tourist attraction to an institution that strives to be a voice for environmental stewardship.

On Tuesday, Pittenger announced that he plans to step down after 15 years as executive director and more than 25 years at the aquarium altogether, triggering a nationwide search to find his replacement.

During his tenure, Pittenger introduced visitors to the wonders of Australia's Outback and is helping to lead the push for a swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor. He also fended off a proposal for a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant next to the aquarium.

The Pennsylvania native, who has headed Baltimore's aquarium longer than any other executive director since it opened in 1981, said he will stay in his job during the search, a process expected to take eight months to a year.

The aquarium typically draws 1.4 million to 1.6 million visitors a year and has 250 full-time employees and an annual operating budget of $30 million. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it consistently ranks as one of the top five aquariums in North America in terms of attendance. One of Maryland's biggest attractions, it's also in the black, taking in $37 million in 2009 against expenses of $30 million.

Besides the facilities on Inner Harbor Piers 3 and 4, the National Aquarium has also begun work this month on a $5 million waterfront park on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Pittenger, 61, also serves on three boards that are heavily involved in tourism and development in Baltimore: the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, the Downtown Partnership, and Visit Baltimore.

He announced his decision to step down from his $322,000-a-year-job during a staff meeting Tuesday. He said he has been thinking a lot about the aquarium's 30th anniversary coming up in August of 2011 and felt it is a good point to make a change.

"For me, it's a perfect time to consider what else I would like to accomplish in my professional life and to explore other interests," he said, "both in and out of the aquarium field."

Pittenger noted that he began working for Baltimore's aquarium in 1979 as education director, before the building even opened, left for 18 months in the mid-1980s to work on an aquarium project in Maine, and returned to fill a series of roles at Baltimore's aquarium before becoming executive director in 1995. As a result, he said, "I've been here longer than many of the fish."

He said he's proud of what it offers today.

"Do we have the biggest fish tank? No. Do we have the greatest number of fish? No. But I think we have a nice blend. … It's a beautiful piece of exhibit architecture."

Colleagues said Tuesday that Pittenger has been instrumental in making the aquarium a voice for conservation and education as well as a magnet for tourists.

"Very few decisions are made about Baltimore's tourism industry without Dave Pittenger at the table," said Nancy Hinds, vice president of public affairs for Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism agency. "They have giant shoes to fill."

As a board member of the Waterfront Partnership, Pittenger has been an early advocate for the Inner Harbor's improved maintenance and promotion, said Waterfront Partnership executive director Laurie Schwartz. "I hope he stays involved. He has a tremendous amount to contribute."

The National Aquarium stands out in its commitment to education and innovation in exhibits and programs, said Jim Maddy, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. "Any way you want to measure it, the National Aquarium is one of the top institutions in the country."

Its impact goes far beyond the United States, according to architect Peter Chermayeff, who specializes in aquarium design. "It's recognized around the world," Chermayeff said. "He has a lot to be proud of."

Trained at Cornell University as an educator and naturalist, Pittenger is the aquarium's fourth director.

During his tenure, the aquarium built two structures: the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 and Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes on Pier 3. It added a variety of exhibits, from Jellies to a "4D" theater.

The aquarium's search committee will be headed by long time board member Donald Pettit. Pittenger said his successor will need to have "positive credentials in the world of conservation."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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