LB City Council approves loan of up to $5 million for Aquarium of the Pacific

Aquarium of the Pacific social media coordinator Madeline Walden holds a rainbow lorikeet for a TikTok, the aquarium’s newest digital outlet for marine and aviary education. (Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

The Long Beach City Council authorized a loan of up to $5 million for the Aquarium of the Pacific due to a loss in admissions revenue during the pandemic at their Tuesday, March 9 meeting. 

The Aquarium of the Pacific is Southern California’s largest aquarium and one of Long Beach’s premier tourist destinations. The space is home to over 11,000 animal exhibits and, during normal years, is visited by millions.

“The Aquarium of the Pacific is a major asset in our city,” Councilmember Cindy Allen said. “Even without visitors, the animals and the ecosystems must be maintained.”

The Aquarium of the Pacific released a rehabilitated 50-pound green sea turtle Aug. 15 after it was rescued from a power plant area.

After an initial closure on March 14 of last year, the Aquarium pivoted to outdoor-only operations and beefed up its online offerings. Like other Long Beach institutions, the aquarium has been subject to changing reopening guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, ticket sales—one of the aquarium’s largest revenue sources—took a substantial hit. 

The Aquarium’s primary source of operating revenue comes from admissions. Of unrestricted revenue, nearly 90% comes from admissions and spending associated with admissions. 

When the Aquarium is fully closed to the public, the nonprofit hemorrhages $1.2 million a month in lost revenue, according to the Aquarium’s Chief Financial Officer Anthony Brown. When outdoor-only health orders are in effect, the Aquarium loses around $600,000 a month. 

During a typical year, the Aquarium has 1.6 to 1.7 million visitors. Last year, the Aquarium was only able to fully open for a mere 91 days, Brown said, resulting in a net loss of around $13 million.

On top of rent obligations, the Aquarium is home to 12,000 animals, all of which come with costs. 

The first major addition to the Aquarium since its opening in 1998, the Pacific Visions Wing is set to open to the public Friday, May 24.

“It takes around $750,000 per month just to feed and care for the animals,” Brown wrote in an email to the Signal Tribune. “This figure includes the costs of food, saltwater for exhibits, veterinary care, labor costs, etc.”

Last summer, the Long Beach City Council authorized an initial loan to the Aquarium, but the Aquarium made enough to fulfill their rent obligation without using the funds. 

The new loan authorized by the council will allow the Aquarium to borrow up to $5 million in monthly payments for rent and as-need expenses. 

The Corporation determined that the loan may need to range between $1.2 and $10 million, but that “the range of $1.2 million to $5 million seems more likely.”

The Aquarium reopened on Jan. 30 of this year thanks to the City’s newest health order, which allowed the Aquarium to open outdoor exhibits with safety precautions in place.

“This is a good sign, and if good news on the pandemic continues, the loan could be as low as $1.2 million,” the item states. “However, as the pandemic has proven, there are many uncertainties and the situation could change.”

How will the City pay for it?

The $5 million loan will be paid from the City’s Tidelands Oil Revenue Fund Group, a fund that has faced its own challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For many years, there was a belief that the Tidelands Fund was positive and secure and stable, and a reliable source to fund a lot of the infrastructure we have along the ocean,” Councilmember Suzie Price said. “That is no longer the case.”

She supported the item, but pointed out that councilmembers should be aware of the vulnerable state of that Tidelands Fund when making decisions that could potentially limit other funding opportunities. 

The next Long Beach City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, March 16 at 5 p.m. via teleconference.

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