BUFFALO NEWS: Aquarium expansion could woo tourists into spending more time in the Falls

Mark Grisanti

August 13, 2012

The Aquarium of Niagara wowed visitors when it opened nearly a half-century ago. But many believe it is, as one lawmaker put it, a gem in need of repolishing.

Aquarium officials are beginning the first steps of that process, and the state has pitched in to help. USA Niagara Development Corp. agreed last month to fund a $66,000 study that will document the deficiencies of the entire 32,000-square-foot complex - which officials say is a much-needed step.

"Just like a home or apartment, you need some upgrades," said Development Director Gay B. Molnar. "What the study will show us is what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses and what do we need to do to enhance [our offerings] here."

The study will analyze the building's structure and interior architecture, mechanical, plumbing and electrical work, fire and security systems and handicapped accessibility.

It follows work that has been completed in the past several years on the electrical system, outdoor lights, a new viewing deck and the insulated dome. Much of the work is invisible to the more than 200,000 people who come to the aquarium each year, but Molnar said it is important nonetheless.

What really needs to be done, though, many say, is a full-scale revamping, from the exhibit areas to the gift shop.

Three years ago, the aquarium seemed to be on the verge of a major expansion project that would have doubled its Whirlpool Street footprint to roughly 60,000 square feet. But the $5 million state grant for the project never came through, and lesser improvements appear to be the goal now.

While its Peruvian penguins and California sea lions captivated a large Canadian crowd on a recent weekday, Molnar said the aquarium's gift shop should be gutted, and more space is needed for an educational wing and administrative offices.

In addition, the facility needs the flexibility to change up its current exhibits and attract new ones, like the coral reef that will be built after Labor Day. It also would like to feature otters, jellyfish and sharks.

"Travelers now are very savvy about what to expect," Molnar said. "Yes, we're small, but we've got excellent exhibits."

With an expansion of the facility, Molnar said tourists at the falls "would spend at least an additional day. It's a no-brainer."

But the challenges to that expansion are formidable, according to officials who say the aquarium has long been "forgotten" because it sits north of Main Street in an area that is hard to access for travelers unfamiliar with the area.

A lack of funding remains the largest challenge for the aquarium, which operates on a $1.5 million budget and no county support.

The nonprofit Niagara Aquarium Foundation, which operates the facility, would need to raise roughly $40 million for a new building, and it does not have funds set aside for the expansion, Molnar said.

The state has contributed $90,000 toward a master plan for the aquarium, but Molnar acknowledges that significant fundraising obstacles remain. In the meantime, officials will continue to chip away at the smaller, behind-the-scenes repairs they believe will pay off in the long term.

"It isn't something you just can throw together," Molnar said. "It's piecing it together one step at a time."

A key step to that puzzle, aquarium officials say, was getting the USA Niagara Development boundary expanded north of Main Street a year ago to include the aquarium.

That move, spearheaded by Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, and State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, paved the way for the study, which will take about one month to complete.

Officials have not selected a starting date.

"This facility assessment is an important first step toward any renovation or expansion efforts at the aquarium," Ceretto said last week. "I look forward to seeing its progress over the coming months and years."

"This action takes us another step further in reaching our goal of expanding this regional asset and visitor attraction, and updating the existing building," executive director Nancy Chapin said in a statement.

The aquarium has faced uncertainty before, when it struggled financially in the 1990s before the nonprofit took control.

In addition, a highly anticipated plan from an unrelated developer to build an underground aquarium closer to Niagara Falls State Park cast confusion over its future before the plan failed.

And the attraction remains despite a brief movement to put an aquarium on the downtown Buffalo waterfront in the early 1990s.

"We've survived all of it," Molnar said.

The aquarium would also appear to anchor the city's proposed cultural district north of Main Street, which is laid out in the city's comprehensive plan.

"The aquarium is the only one of our region, and it is the only cultural asset in the city's proposed cultural district," said USA Niagara President Christopher J. Schoepflin.

"Helping the aquarium become more successful and playing perhaps a small role in its future growth is an important economic development [goal] toward extending stay and growing more visitors."

No one is promising a quick fix at the Aquarium of Niagara, but Molnar is convinced the entity is moving in the right direction.

"I think the puzzle pieces are falling into the puzzle even more than they were five years ago, and I feel we're getting closer," she said.