Attendance at the National Aquarium this year is expected to tick up a little more than 1 percent to 1.33 million, but remains significantly below levels experienced several years ago before the recession.
Still, an economic impact report to be released Wednesday found that many of the visitors to the Inner Harbor attraction come from out of state, spend a good deal of money in the region and cite the aquarium as the reason they came.
The study, conducted by Sage Policy Group, estimates that the aquarium is responsible for an economic impact of nearly $320 million in the Baltimore and Washington region, providing an underpinning for more than 3,300 jobs.
"I think what we were most pleased with was the fact that in this difficult time we're able to give back and be the economic engine that creates these jobs," said John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium Institute, which also has a facility in Washington.
The aquarium commissioned the report, which cost just under $20,000, as it prepares to once again seek a capital grant from the state, Racanelli said.
The General Assembly passed a bill earlier this year to grant the aquarium $2.5 million, he said, to assist in the renovation of its central area, the Ray Tray. The refreshed exhibit, to be named Blacktip Reef, is scheduled to open next summer. The estimated cost of that project, which will replicate a healthy reef in the Indo-Pacific region, is $12.5 million.
Additional funds will be needed to "refresh and renew" other parts of the 31-year-old facility, Racanelli said.
"From an economic perspective, the National Aquarium is worthy of continued support," the study's executive summary concluded. "Further expansion in operations would generate additional economic impact."
State and city officials praised the aquarium upon the release of the report.
"This study demonstrates that the National Aquarium continues to be a driving force for our state's economic engine by generating vital revenue for our region and supporting jobs for our families," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement.
The aquarium, the city's No. 1 paid tourist attraction, accounts for $11.7 million in state tax revenues and nearly $6 million for the city, the report found.
"More than 30 years ago, National Aquarium changed Baltimore by bringing an incredible attraction to the city and opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who come to Baltimore City," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "Along with the hundreds of jobs created and maintained as well as the millions of dollars going back into the city, National Aquarium is an institution that has helped the city grow and thrive."
Based on surveys completed by aquarium visitors, Sage determined that most of them came from out of state. And 88 percent reported the aquarium as the reason for coming, though most also visited other parts of the Inner Harbor. Nearly a third stayed in hotel rooms in the region.
Visitors to the Baltimore aquarium spend $206 million per year on lodging, transportation, food, shopping, gas and recreation, the study estimated.
"One of the hardest things with these economic impact studies is really determining how much economic activity should be attributed to a place," said Anirban Basu, CEO of Sage Policy Group. "But in this case it was clear the aquarium is a driver of the activity."
Not only that, the aquarium's location encourages consumers to continue engaging with the local economy in a variety of ways, he said.
"It's hard to differentiate what brings people to Baltimore because it's really the whole package," said Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "But there's no doubt that the aquarium has long been the jewel and the crown in Baltimore's resurgence."
While attendance at the Baltimore aquarium has been roughly flat since 2010, above 1.3 million, visitation has been growing at the D.C. aquarium. Overall the organization is on pace to have its best attendance since 2007 with 1.54 million visitors, Racanelli said. Nearly 200,000 of those projected 1.3 million visitors came as part of an education or tour group, he said.
Racanelli, who took over as CEO of the National Aquarium Institute in summer 2011, envisions the aquarium taking on an increased role in conservation education.
"That's really a critical component for where we're going," he said. "We've obviously got to keep things fresh for our guests but we're also looking to make it clear how important preserving these environments is for the future."