An aquarium along the river — an idea floated by the Detroit Zoo last week — seems like an obvious addition to the cultural landscape, one that could boost downtown’s pull for tourists and families. Even Dan Gilbert seems excited. Problem is, the ratio of hype to details is about 10 to one. And while top facilities around the U.S. bring in annual revenues upwards of $50 million, dozens of lesser ones have closed in recent decades.
While we wait to see what the Zoo comes up with, take a look at how other cities turned their aquariums into top destinations — and which factors sunk the others.
DON’T HATE THE STINGRAYS, HATE THE GAME
Much of the aquarium game is an arms race (fins race?) for tourist dollar dominance. There’s a lot of competition and Detroit is sandwiched between two of North America’s finest aquariums (Toronto’s Ripley’s Aquarium and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium). America’s biggest fish palace, the Georgia Aquarium, recently announced the $100-million-dollar Expansion 2020, which includes a floor-to-ceiling shark exhibit. Monterey Bay Aquarium, America’s top aquarium for kids, has a child-themed Splash Zone with underwater camera, child-sized microscopes and touch ponds. What we’re saying is, fish tanks are not going to cut it.
AQUA-LEADERS MAKE IT RAIN
Successful aquariums require major donors and major dollars on the table. Shedd raised almost $15 million from contributors in 2017 and has a total endowment of more than $200 million. Those are serious numbers. Crain’s wondered whether Metro Detroit’s elite will be tapped out by the legion of local institutions who are currently fundraising for “finite dollars” — like the City of Detroit, Riverfront, the DIA, Michigan Opera Theatre and other players.
And do residents want their tax dollars to pay for Shamus? Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto received more than $30 million in funding and incentives from every level of Canadian government — city, provincial and federal. The state of Georgia will give its aquarium a $4.5 million sales tax break to help fund new exhibits. Even our own tiny Belle Isle aquarium was funded in the year 1900 with $150,000 of bonds through a voter referendum (about $4 million dollars today). While the Detroit Zoo’s last millage passed swimmingly, a larger tax burden may make voters nervous — especially if voters in Macomb County were asked to pony up (voters there approved zoo funding by a smaller margin).
IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME GAWK?
The nation’s top aquariums each attract more than 2 million tourists every year — Detroit Zoo CEO Ron Kagan estimated that Detroit’s aquarium would attract a million visitors. But the fight for aquatic tourists isn’t as simple as counting fish. After an attendance dip, Georgia Aquarium embarked on a data-centric targeted ad campaign to boost family tourism and memberships. That campaign, which cost $2.7 million in media spending, was so successful that it was written up by Harvard Business Review. But that’s one whale of an advertising budget. A Detroit aquarium will need serious marketing and media firepower to keep up.
BE ONE WITH THE RIVER
Baltimore’s National Aquarium will spend the next few years finalizing the vision of a renovation that restores waterfront access to aquarium visitors, including a floating wetland, interactive piers and terraces to the water’s edge.”It’s all about connecting people with the water that they depend on to live,” said CEO John Racanelli.
It should go without saying that the aquarium’s design should incorporate the riverfront as an asset rather than blocking water access and views, but this city has seen plenty of self-defeating design choices. The Zoo may also want to look for a location with more room for expansion. The old Ford Auditorium site is relatively small (15 acres) and congested (the traffic around Hart Plaza is already crazy). Moving the site further east, near the Outdoor Adventure Center, or due west, to Joe Louis Arena, could give the aquarium more room to grow. No location should be chosen without carefully considering how families and tourists will park, walk or use mass transit to get there.
FIND A MISSION
America’s finest aquariums are preserving endangered animal species, conducting groundbreaking research and supplementing science education in nearby classrooms. At the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, students can even learn about the impact of oil spills on local wildlife. For Detroit’s aquatic adventure to really raise the necessary funding and goodwill, it needs more than just 49 varieties of starfish — it will only survive by developing a regional identity, and a stronger rationale for its existence than tourist dollars alone.