Valdosta Daily Times

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December 25, 2012

Flint RiverQuarium in Albany struggles for survival

ALBANY, Ga. —  As Sanders Lewallen reaches the top of the steps that take him from the lobby to the exhibition area of the Flint RiverQuarium, a smile spreads across his face. He looks straight ahead at the glass wall that offers a stunning view of the blue hole that is the centerpiece of the aquarium, pausing for a moment to take in the scene.

“I’ve been here a year and a few months now, and I never tire of that sight,” the director of the RiverQuarium says.

That sight has been enjoyed by some 66,000 visitors a year, mostly children eager to get an up-close-and-personal look at the aquatic life on display at the attraction, for the past eight years. Lewallen, his drastically cut staff and supporters of the RiverQuarium are doing everything they can to assure those youngsters that the aquarium will still be open when they plan their next trip.

The Albany City Commission voted two weeks ago to supply the RiverQuarium with $150,000 in emergency funding, funding Lewallen said he’d have to have in order to keep the doors of the attraction open over the next three months. There are detractors, though, who’ve blasted the commission for its action, saying officials are only tossing away more tax money to prolong the inevitable.

Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff, one of two board members who voted against the emergency funding, is among those who don’t hold out much hope for the aquarium.

“I want badly for the RiverQuarium to succeed, but I don’t want to do it this way, by throwing money at it,” Langstaff said before a vote was taken on the funding measure.

Others in the community have criticized Lewallen for “waiting until the last minute” to seek the funding and then “waiting a year until the money ran out to start trying to raise (private) funds to support the RiverQuarium.” Lewallen scoffs at the notion.

“People are saying ‘Why is he waiting until now to start fundraising?”’ the aquarium director said while taking a visitor on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility. “They need to understand, we’re not ‘starting’ the fundraising now. We’re continuing the fundraising.

“We’ve been looking for ways to reduce costs and diversify and add to our revenue stream from the moment I got here.”

Lewallen offers evidence to support his claim, noting that in his 16 months on the job he’s overseen efforts that have:

— Reduced operating expenses by more than $350,000;

— Raised more than a half-million dollars in private funds;

— Increased revenue generated by rentals, special events, gift shop purchases, camps, education fees;

— Planned a massive local and regional membership campaign;

— Drilled an 80-foot well on site that will cut costs of dechlorinating water currently supplied by the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission;

— Implemented touch screen and wall graphics projects funded by $505,000 in voter-approved special-purpose local-option sales tax;

— Worked with Education Manager Melissa Martin to create a campaign to bring more school-aged children to the RiverQuarium’s state curriculum-focused wet lab/education center.

“The emergency funding that the city so graciously provided us was just that: money to help us meet an immediate emergency,” Lewallen said. “We hope to maintain our bare-bones level of staffing and continue to cut costs while raising an additional $150,000 to close what we figured would be an immediate funding gap of $300,000.

“But we’re not stopping there. We’re looking at ways to increase the efficiency of our equipment while planning a solicitation campaign for grants and donations that will allow us to make up for the $525,000 in funding that the city and county cut a couple of years ago.”

Regular visitors to the RiverQuarium are familiar with the various fish and other acquatic wildlife that are the focus of the exhibits inside the aquarium. But few are aware of the inner workings of the venue required to keep those creatures alive and comfortable in their surroundings.

General curator Richard Brown is primarily responsible for most of the daily behind-the-scenes work among the intricate series of pipes, filters and pumps that are vital to the operation of the aquarium.

“This down here is like a living, breathing thing,” said Brown, who has been with the RiverQuarium since it opened on Labor Day in 2004 after a 17-year career at Sea World. “Those pumps are like the heart, and the filters here are like the kidneys.

“The pipes take the water into the various tanks inside the aquarium, and each system must have water that is the appropriate temperature and the appropriate level of salinity for the fish of that system. These things must be monitored around the clock; we can’t stop for weekends or holidays. This is definitely a labor of love for us.”

Brown’s staff, which currently includes two full-time employees and four part-timers, fell victim to some of the budget-saving cuts.

“We’re certainly aware of the budget issues, but we do what we have to do to make sure our animals are healthy and well cared for,” Brown said. “I talked with a fellow marine biologist who said a facility like ours would optimally have 15 full-time employees. So you can see why we’re constantly scrambling to get things done.”

Martin, who minus a couple of months has been a part of the RiverQuarium staff for all of its eight years, said she’s planning a more extensive campaign to get the word out about the education program at the attraction.

“I’d really love to expand our outreach efforts to include more water conservation and water quality programs,” she said. “Our education program in the wet lab is in line with state of Georgia performance standards, which allows us to offer a hands-on experience that students are not going to get in the classroom.”

These ongoing efforts to increase efficiency and program offerings at the RiverQuarium will become moot, though, if adequate funding is not available. Despite the more than $500,000 in city and county cuts, a segment of the community is demanding zero tax-dollar input and even closure of the state-owned facility. That, board member and longtime Albany elected/volunteer official Emily Jean McAfee says, would diminish the community.

“This facility can work here,” McAfee said. “Because of some not very good advice given by outsiders who didn’t understand the demographics or the people in this area, the RiverQuarium has been underfunded from the beginning. We can’t change that, but we can add another component or two to the income stream. We’re actually owned by the (state) Department of Natural Resources, and they can help us by allowing us to become a part of their state network.

“Our tickets here are reasonably priced, and they’ve helped subsidize visitor overhead and allowed us to keep this attraction available to one of the most underserved and underprivileged populations in the country. Certainly any foundation or granting organization would celebrate what we do.”

Still, there are those detractors.

“To the people who have nothing but negative things to say about the RiverQuarium, I’d ask that they call me, let me talk to them about what we have,” McAfee said. “Let me show them what we’ve got. I really believe it won’t be that hard to convince them that this is a facility worth saving.”

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