Virginia Beach explores private ownership options for Virginia Aquarium
Virginia Beach is considering handing off the Virginia Aquarium to a private operator as aquarium leaders say they need roughly $250 million for a major renovation and expansion.
No decisions have been made, and no offers are on the table — at least publicly — but several members of City Council said during a meeting Tuesday that they were open to exploring the idea.
From preliminary research, City Manager Patrick Duhaney said it sounds like someone would be eager to take the Aquarium.
“There is an appetite, at least from the private sector, on our aquarium. That was really expressed to us,” Duhaney told the council.
Since it opened in 1986, the Virginia Aquarium has been run as a department of the city in partnership with a nonprofit foundation.
The city owns the facilities and exhibits, and employs more than 120 staff to run it. The foundation owns the animals that populate the aquarium.
But the aging facilities need serious overhauls. City staff said water filtration systems and exhibit tanks are reaching the end of their lifespan.
Earlier this year, Aquarium leaders rolled out a plan for a decade-long renovation and expansion expected to cost somewhere between roughly $200 million and $300 million. That would include major new exhibits and a soaring two-story lobby that could host weddings and other events.
Virginia Beach leaders balked at the price tag.
“I’m hearing people say we need better stormwater, better maintenance of our stormwater, we need refurbished and renovated rec centers, we need new schools. I rarely hear people say we need an aquarium, or a different aquarium,” Councilman Michael Berlucchi said.
City staff have been exploring different options.
One is a smaller-scale overhaul of the existing facilities, which would include closing the Aquarium for a year to knock it all out for about half the price of the proposed expansion.
But Mayor Bobby Dyer said that doesn’t sound like a realistic option, given a year’s worth of lost revenue and activity.
“Going forward, based on what I’m hearing, looking for a different ownership model may be in our best interest in a lot of ways,” Dyer said.
According to the Aquarium, it had an overall economic impact for the city of $257 million during the last fiscal year, as well as $5.8 million in direct tax revenue to the city.
City staff said the Virginia Aquarium is the third most-visited tourist attraction in the state, behind Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens.