City Awards Remainder of $15 Million Grant to Aquarium in Advance of Large-Scale Expansion

 

A rendering of the proposed Pacific Visions project. Photo courtesy of EHDD

The Aquarium of the Pacific took an important step toward realizing its newest attraction in Long Beach after the city council voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve the remaining $10.7 million of a challenge grant to be paid to the aquarium over the next 10 years.

The grant was originally approved in 2013 and was supposed to be paid out in annual installments of $1.5 million out of the city’s Tidelands Fund, which has been impacted by the drop in the price of oil. When the grant was approved in 2013, a barrel of crude oil was selling for over $90 per barrel. The same barrel of crude is selling at just over $50 per barrel. To date, the city had paid out $4.3 million of the $15 million grant but the council’s vote last night will pay out the remainder over a restructured time table ending in 2025.

Funding had been previously short for the aquarium’s proposed Pacific Visions project, a new 29,000-square-foot addition to the Long Beach facility. The new wing will include a two-story structure with a theatre containing a 130-foot-wide by 32-foot-tall screen with a retractable floor for an immersive audience experience. The project came with a price tag of around $53 million, $40 million of which had been secured as of March.


 

“It will be the most powerful platform in the world outside of the military that allows the public to explore alternative pathways to the future and determine how our actions collectively will determine the future that we actually have,” said Dr. Jerry R. Schubel, president and CEO of the aquarium.

The aquarium generates an estimated $60 million annually to the Long Beach region and over $160 million when accounting for impacts made to Los Angeles and Orange counties. It drew in over 1.7 million visitors this year. With the expansion, it’s expected that that number can push past two million people per year, most of which would be from outside the city.

Pacific Visions is projected to open in 2018 and the aquarium intends to take out loans to front the cost of its construction. The city’s payments, which will fluctuate between $1 million and $1.7 million annually, will serve to “satisfy the needs” of the lending institution. Due to its role, the annual payments will have priority over all Tidelands operating needs, except debt service payments on existing bonds over the next 10 years.

It won't, however, impact new projects that are funded by Tidelands revenue. The most notable of which is arguably the new Belmont Plaza Pool project, which has stood idle due to lack of funding as it, too, was impacted by the continuous drop in the price of oil. Tidelands money can only go toward projects on the coastline like the Belmont Plaza Pool and the recently approved Seaside Way Pedestrian Bridge project.


 

“My favorite part of the proposal and the budget aspect of it is that it will not impact any existing or future projects out of the Tidelands area,” said Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, whose district includes the pool project site. “That’s a real concern for those of us that fund many city assets through that particular budget.”

The city is hopeful that the price of oil continues its recent upward trend, as it will help cushion its payments to the aquarium. The last two years of the payments will also be aided by the fact that a current bond supporting Rainbow Harbor will have expired.

A memo from the city manager’s office notes that there is an undetermined amount of risk with the project, as it may require financing beyond the $15 million the city is set to allocate to the aquarium., However, the motion has safeguards built in to ensure the city receives the largest possible shares of construction-related taxes from the project and a clause that states funding will be returned to the city if the project isn’t under “material and continuing” construction within the next five years.



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