Duluth aquarium celebrates newfound stability on 15th anniversary

DULUTH, Minn. -- In its 15 years of operating in Duluth, the Great Lakes Aquarium has seen the pendulum of public opinion swing wildly. The $33.8 million aquarium first opened on July 29, 2000 to long lines of visitors, with an estimated 3,000 pe...

Kelton Rhodes, 7, of Duluth watches as an otter creates a painting at the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth on Thursday afternoon, July 23, 2015. (Clint Austin /


DULUTH, Minn. -- In its 15 years of operating in Duluth, the Great Lakes Aquarium has seen the pendulum of public opinion swing wildly.

The $33.8 million aquarium first opened on July 29, 2000 to long lines of visitors, with an estimated 3,000 people streaming through its doors on Day One.

But the honeymoon didn't last long.


Although initial attendance figures beat expectations, the flow of visitors into the aquarium soon began to flag and never came close to a consultant's projections that it would attract 400,000 people per year.

The aquarium fell on hard times, requiring ongoing infusions of financial aid from the city.

In November 2002, then-Mayor Gary Doty cut back the aquarium's hours, opening it only on weekends in an effort to curb losses.

In 2005, then-Mayor Herb Bergson called the aquarium "a quagmire."

"In terms of the projections of consultants and advocates, there's no question that they were way too optimistic, And the aquarium went through a very difficult and public period of adjustment from a staffing and revenue perspective," said current Mayor Don Ness, who was a city councilor when the aquarium first opened.

"They had to right-size their operation, and it took a longer time than anyone would have liked -- but today, there's no question that the aquarium has found its footing and a sense of stability," Ness said.

He gives much of the credit to Jack LaVoy, a former state representative who was recruited to serve as the ailing aquarium's executive director in November 2007.

"The turnaround demonstrates the importance of having the leadership of someone like Jack, who is so well respected. He brings tremendous sincerity to the job, and he's a person that people trust."


The aquarium still annually requires substantial help from the city. It will receive a $360,000 subsidy in 2015, with funds coming from Duluth's tourism tax collections.

Ness said tourism tax proceeds are earmarked specifically to support the city's tourism attractions, and the aquarium remains Duluth's single most popular tourism destination charging admission.

"We certainly would love to find a model where we could reduce the amount of support the aquarium needs," Ness said

But he described the need to maintain a delicate balance that allows for the facility to thrive and continue to attract visitors.

LaVoy said the help the aquarium requires is not unusual.

A recent report from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums indicated that such facilities received, on average, about 21 cents of every dollar they use from public funding, and the remainder from earned revenues.

With the aquarium's operating budget at just shy of $2 million, Duluth's contribution to its costs represents about 18 cents on the dollar.


Countering critics

LaVoy acknowledged critics' questioning of the wisdom of continued public support of the aquarium.

"There was a period of time where the focus was: How can we get rid of it or how can we shut it down?" he said.

When LaVoy took the helm at the aquarium, he told staff there would be no quick fix for the facility's battered image.

"We didn't lose our support overnight, and we're not going to get it back overnight; we have to earn it," he said. "We had to take what we had here and make it work, so when people came they would have a good experience."

Under the management of Ripley Entertainment Inc. from 2003-07, many of the aquarium's exhibits had fallen into disrepair; LaVoy recalled that 17 out of 19 interactive displays for visitors were broken when he arrived.

LaVoy noted that the aquarium's poorest year for attendance, 2008, was his first on the job.

"I think that was because when Ripley's was here, they just kind of let things fall apart. They took money out and didn't put money back in. So that was reflected in the facility, and people said: 'We don't need to go there, because nothing works,' " he said.


Lavoy described the aquarium he inherited as initially "decrepit."

"The day I got here I experienced a number of surprises," he said. "In my first 15 minutes on the job, we experienced a catastrophic collapse of our computer system, which destroyed all of our electronic files and really disrupted the business."

The aquarium was able to limp along with the help of an external server, while arrangements were made for a new computer system.

LaVoy said he also soon discovered the aquarium had amassed about $350,000 in overdue bills.

"The first thing was to get the computers going. The second was to assure our creditors that we would be honoring our commitments. And the third thing was to implement a program I called the three R's, which was to repair, replace or remove any exhibit that didn't work," he said.

With help from the city, the aquarium is now current with its bills.

Under LaVoy's watch, the aquarium now employs 21 people on a full-time basis and 10 part-timers. The staffing is a far cry from the 72 full-time and 25 part-time employees the aquarium had on its payroll when it first opened.

"We're far leaner, and everyone has multiple roles to play," LaVoy said.


Education emphasis

While overall staffing has been greatly reduced, that hasn't happened completely across the board.

LaVoy said the aquarium's targeted spending reflects its priorities, noting that when he started work at the facility it had three educators on staff. Today, it employs twice that number on a full-time basis.

The aquarium doubled the amount of its summer offerings this year, hiring area teachers on a part-time basis to supplement its own staff of educators. To date, its income from education programs is up more than 45 percent from last year.

Alaina Pilate, a first-grade teacher at Duluth's Congdon Elementary School, said she has benefited professionally from attending science institute classes at the aquarium and also has used the aquarium for field trips.

Pilate praised aquarium staff, saying: "They really offer such a variety of programs with amazing flexibility. They address the needs and the goals that we're trying to meet in our classrooms. And they're always super-friendly and super-helpful."

She contends more educators could benefit from working with the aquarium.


"The challenge is to get more of the teaching community aware of what resources they offer. I think they could be so much more utilized if more teachers were aware of how well they have the kits put together or that they're willing to work with you and come out to you," Pilate said.

LaVoy said he believes the aquarium's emphasis on education is beneficial not only for the community, but for business as well.

"I think it has strengthened the organization throughout, because the more you get families engaged here and they see what a great experience awaits them, the more they start telling their friends and neighbors, and then that continues to mushroom, which is good -- that's what we want," he said.

The aquarium just completed work on a $425,000 Discovery Center, with the flexibility to host multiple classes of various sizes.

The new classrooms also will free up additional space within the aquarium, LaVoy said, outlining plans to begin work soon on a new "Unsalted Seas" exhibit expected to open by December 2016.

Since he began his tenure at the aquarium, LaVoy said the facility has poured significant funds into its operations.

"All told, in the last seven years, we've invested $1.474 million in new exhibit development and upgrades. Plus, now we're looking at an Unsalted Seas exhibit for $726,000, which will bring our total investment over eight years to $2.2 million," LaVoy said.

LaVoy credits the recent opening of a "Shipwrecks Alive" exhibit for an uptick in visitors to the aquarium. So far this year, attendance is trending 24 percent above last year's levels and is on pace to hit the highest level since 2002.

"We can see it in the numbers. When we have something new, attendance goes up. When things have been around three years or longer ... attendance tends to wane," he said.

Allison Iacone, the aquarium's communications coordinator, said: "Giving visitors a fresh experience is really a key part of keeping the aquarium vital."

Changing people's opinions of the aquarium has not been easy, LaVoy said.

"The people that have never been here since the transformation may still have old opinions locked into their minds, but the people who come here today walk away with a very positive feeling toward this place and their experience. We get incredible feedback," he said.

Nevertheless, Iacone describe a "sea change" in public sentiment.

"The feedback we're receiving now is like night and day compared to several years ago," she said. "It's gratifying for those of us who have been working so hard to make this place go. It definitely seems to show we're doing something right."

The Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, as seen on Thursday afternoon, July 23, 2015. Admissions to the aquarium are running 25 percent ahead of last year. The aquarium also has bumped up its summer programming, and educational visitors are trending nearly 45 percent ahead of last year. (Clint Austin /

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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