Grand Forks is set to further explore a $1 million deal with a Utah-based aquarium company.

City Council members voted 5-1 on Tuesday to continue moving forward with a $1 million grant to SeaQuest, an Idaho-based company that hopes to set up an aquarium in the Grand Cities Mall and could be an economic boon for a city where retail business has been declining for years and whose business leaders commissioned a study that suggests "experiential" businesses could be an economic boon.

“We’ve got an opportunity that I certainly don’t think should be immediately shot down without further assessing,” Mayor Brandon Bochenski said. “I’m not a huge fan of public money being invested in these types of projects, but I think something’s got to spark the growth in our town for both experiences and for retail.”

Further votes on the subsidy haven’t been set. The earliest they could realistically happen, according to City Administrator Todd Feland, is a preliminary vote on a fleshed-out grant agreement and economic analysis on Monday, Aug. 23, and a final vote on the same on Tuesday, Sept. 7.

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Council members voted informally last week to ask city staff to further refine the subsidy, and their vote on Monday affirmed that plan. In the interim, council members reportedly received a slew of emails and other messages from residents worried about the company’s record of problems at its other locations, including animal neglect and non-payment of its debtors. PETA members and other animal rights activists have dogged the company for years, and several emails from worried residents were supplied at Monday’s meeting.

Council opinions

Council member Bret Weber, who ran a chain of pizza delivery stores in Utah before he moved to Grand Forks, said he received emails from people who are adamantly opposed to the aquarium company, but he also noted that Salt Lake City changed for the better after it built up parts of the city to host the Winter Olympics in 2002.

“This looks to be a fantastic opportunity to enhance our local retail. It looks like an opportunity to create family friendly events year round,” Weber said.

Council member Jeannie Mock, the lone “nay” vote on Monday, said she was initially excited about the company’s hope to move into the mall, but later grew concerned about the risk the city would undertake as well as animal bites and other issues documented by federal regulators at SeaQuest’s existing locations. She suggested the city put out a request for proposals for the city's money.

Council President Dana Sande wondered if any companies similar to SeaQuest would be interested in the city’s $1 million.

“I’m not trying to say that two in the bush is better than one in the hand, but, if the city is going to invest a million dollars, maybe there’s another aquarium that wants to be here,” Sande said, wondering who else would have knocked on the city’s figurative door if it had advertised that it had money to put toward an aquarium subsidy.

Council member Katie Dachtler, who left Monday's meeting early for a work obligation, told the Herald she would have voted against further exploring the subsidy.

CEO's defense

Monday’s meeting also served as a chance for SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino to defend his company against allegations of animal mistreatment and other problems. Covino refuted a speaker’s characterization of SeaQuest’s aquariums as “roadside zoos” and was adamant that the legal troubles of his brother, who was jailed for illegally transporting spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks, among other alleged misdeeds, were not his own. He also questioned the legitimacy of a “death log” reported by another news outlet that allegedly shows hundreds of animals died at a Covino aquarium.

“This is a reputable company,” Covino said. “It’s the fastest aquarium petting zoo company in the history of the world. Nobody’s done what we’ve done, and that’s because we’ve been very successful with the guest experience, we’ve been successful with compliance with regulators.”