DULUTH (AP) -- The city has formed a task force to save the Great Lakes Aquarium after attendance and revenue have been about 22 percent below projections at the 2-year-old freshwater attraction.
Steep staff pay cuts and layoffs were expected this month, leaving the $34 million aquarium with a bare-bones staff a fraction of the size it opened with in the summer of 2000.
The aquarium is expected to be several hundred thousand dollars off its earlier projections to take in $2.9 million in 2002, which already was down about $1.6 million from last year, according to its budget.
With this year's numbers spiraling downward, nobody is sure where attendance and revenue will bottom out. And the aquarium still has $250,000 in unpaid construction costs.
As part of the agreement between the city and the nonprofit that runs the aquarium, the city can take over operations of the aquarium if it is unable to make bond payments. The city and the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau had to pay the aquarium's annual $238,000 bond payment last February when money fell short. The city's $219,000 portion came from the tourism tax.
Aquarium officials have secured a bank loan in case they come up short again, but the city has backed that loan as well. That payment, about $240,000, is due in February.
Already at stake for taxpayers is about $6 million in bonds backed by the city and Duluth Economic Development Authority.
"I would really rather not see the city involved at all," said City Councilor Russ Stewart, who sits on the nonprofit board that oversees aquarium operations.
Another possibility would be to pair aquarium tickets with other area attractions to boost attendance such as the Lake Superior Zoo, the Omnimax and the Vista Fleet.
Or the aquarium could seek a state subsidy.
Aquarium officials have not sought any, but aquarium president Ann Glumac said the attraction deserves public support, like the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society and zoos.
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