John Racanelli: The National Aquarium – A Sound Investment

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By: John Racanelli 

In July of 1976 I visited Baltimore Harbor as a 20-year old navigator aboard the sailing ship Explorer for the Bicentennial Parade of Tall Ships.  Interestingly, we tied up at then-empty Pier 3, now the home of the National Aquarium.  Little did I know it, but I was a witness to the very beginnings of the Inner Harbor’s amazing revitalization—in many ways, that of Baltimore City itself.

The Baltimore of 2013 is not the same city I saw in 1976. Though it was always a place of diversity, energy and vibrant neighborhoods, today’s Baltimore offers much more to visitors and families.  Many factors contribute to an engaging, thriving city, among them a robust business climate, safe streets, quality schools, an active philanthropic community and great cultural attractions. Like a jigsaw puzzle, these disparate pieces come together to make a city one in which citizens want to raise families and build businesses.

The National Aquarium, as one of the Inner Harbor’s great assets, is an essential piece of the City’s complex puzzle.  Though it bears the title “national” and welcomes millions of people from around the globe, the Aquarium’s roots are uniquely shared with those of Charm City, and its purpose is equally intertwined with Baltimore’s.  It is part of the fabric of the City — in very much the same way as Johns Hopkins, the Ravens, the Orioles, or Under Armour.

Back in the late 1970’s, residents voted overwhelmingly to fund the construction of the Aquarium because they saw in Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s bold idea the potential to do something great for their city.  Despite the fact that the Inner Harbor’s renaissance was a gamble, residents embraced the idea and kept the faith that people would come.  And come they did: to date, 40 million have visited since Mayor Schaefer took that famous swim with the seals in 1981.  Two-and-a-half million Maryland schoolchildren have toured the Aquarium’s ever-changing galleries free of charge, learning about the urgent need to preserve and protect the Chesapeake Bay and many other aquatic treasures worldwide.

The benefits the Aquarium brings to our City extend far beyond Piers 3 and 4.  Ninety percent of the Aquarium’s visitors each year come to Baltimore specifically to visit the Aquarium.  Many stay overnight, while nearly every one of them samples our cuisine, shops, and visits many other arts and cultural offerings throughout the City and region.  As Maryland’s largest and most visited attraction, the National Aquarium also brings tangible economic benefits to the City and State: $314 million in annual economic impact and $19 million in tax revenues for the City and State, supporting more than 3,300 jobs.

Yet, an asset like the National Aquarium faces challenges, too: wear and tear, recessionary impacts on tourism visitation, and the constant need to innovate and change with the times.  We all know that any valuable asset requires reinvestment to maintain its quality and grow, and this applies equally to the Aquarium.  In spite of its title, the nonprofit National Aquarium’s ticket sales cover just 60 percent of operating costs, and the Federal Government provides no operational support whatsoever.

This became glaringly clear when the old Wings in the Water exhibit came close to failing and flooding the floor below it, the toll of 31 years of constantly recirculating salt water to make a home for a hundred sting rays and sharks and a 500-pound sea turtle.  Because the waterproof coating technology of 40 years ago was far less sophisticated than today’s, highly corrosive salt water had penetrated the tank walls through minute cracks, rusting much of the iron rebar that supports the concrete, and causing structural concrete to break off in small chunks in a process called “spalling.”  Since the pump room below the tank contains the life support systems for much of the Aquarium’s collection, decisive action was necessary.  From 2010 through summer 2013, our talented team conceived, designed and built an entirely new exhibit that has become the Aquarium’s new centerpiece.  Blacktip Reef represents a new direction for the National Aquarium, focusing strongly on conservation issues like the plight of coral reefs, coupled with ideas for actions that ordinary citizens can take to ensure their protection.  At the same time, the rebirth of the exhibit addressed some of the critical infrastructure needs of an aging physical plant.  Thanks to the support of private donors, a State grant and a City capital bond, this beautiful new exhibit will inspire guests of every age and background for many years to come.

The Aquarium’s next addition, opening in early 2015, will focus on Maryland’s shorelines and include two interactive children’s touch and explore habitats.  In the years that follow, the Aquarium will reimagine the way it tells the story of the Chesapeake Bay and other aquatic treasures in an interactive, engaging way worthy of 21st Century audiences.  Ultimately, the ocean connects us all, from the Indo-Pacific reefs that inspired Blacktip Reef to our own Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s greatest watersheds.  Designed to be both sustainable and world-class, these planned enhancements will follow the same multifaceted approach taken with Blacktip Reef, combining both practical infrastructure changes and ambitious exhibit updates designed to inspire visitors to care and to act on behalf of aquatic habitats.

The simple reality is that the need for continued investment is as compelling now as it was when visionary Marylanders set their minds to a new dream for the Inner Harbor almost 40 years ago. The National Aquarium remains the heart of the Inner Harbor, and a critical piece of the mosaic that makes Baltimore City a thriving, engaging community with a future worthy of our investment.

John Racanelli is CEO of the National Aquarium. His email is .

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