State

Morro Bay aquarium isn’t dead just yet — this is how it can stay open

Morro Bay looks to add a state-of-the-art aquarium on the Embarcadero

California’s Morro Bay Aquarium, once called “America’s worst aquarium,” is closing. The Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, a marine science education center, could take over the SLO County business.
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California’s Morro Bay Aquarium, once called “America’s worst aquarium,” is closing. The Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, a marine science education center, could take over the SLO County business.

A vision to build a new, upgraded Morro Bay aquarium to fill the vacant space that was once called “America’s worst aquarium” by Vice News will require at least $5 million in seed money to complete the project.

But the Morro Bay City Council has authorized the Central Coast Aquarium — the Avila Beach-based nonprofit heading efforts to re-open the aquarium — to move forward with fundraising under a one-year timeline.

The one-year period will determine whether donor interest is sufficient to carry on with planning for the project, which is envisioned to include aquarium tanks, touch tanks, displays and educational opportunities in a 4,000-square-foot building at 595 Embarcadero.

“There will be opportunities for donors at every level, big and small,” Christine Johnson, executive director of the Central Coast Aquarium, said. “There was so much energy around this. There’s a lot of belief in the future of a new aquarium and the positive impact of a new aquarium.”

The new project, if successful, would be a fresh new look under new organizational leadership for the space that fronts the bay, and which Johnson said is a prime spot for launching educational tours of ocean marine life.

The aquarium that operated at the site since the 1960s by the Tyler family shut down in August 2018 after drawing criticism from animal rights activists for the conditions in which they kept the aquarium’s famous sea lions.

Earlier in 2018, VICE News called the Morro Bay Aquarium “America’s worst aquarium.”

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A new aquarium is planned to replace Morro Bay’s existing facility at 595 Embarcadero. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The aquarium is a partnership between Central Coast Aquarium; Cal Poly, which is assisting in the planning for the new design; and the city of Morro Bay.

Central Coast Aquarium helped raise the $44,000 needed for the feasibility study, including $10,000 from the City of Morro Bay and $4,000 through a San Luis Obispo County Community Programs Grant.

Johnson said that now the work begins to launch the campaign to attract enough money not only to build the new facility but also to have the seed money to operate it in its infancy.

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Caleb Sanchez, 2, touches a sea star held by Maureen Abert, aquarium coordinator at Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach. The organization is seeking public support to fund a feasibility study on setting up a new, state-of-the-art aquarium in Morro Bay to replace the one closing in September. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Early estimates for the funding needed are $5 to $10 million, Johnson said.

“We’ll need to raise the capital money to demolish and rebuild on the site, and that’s probably a minimum of $5 million to do that,” Johnson said.

The feasibility study projects about 52,000 visitors per year to the aquarium, bringing in about $691,000 of revenue, with $813,000 of operating expenses.

The Central Coast Aquarium currently brings in 5,000 school children (including from throughout SLO County) each year at its Avila Beach location, of which 60 to 65 percent are from low-income backgrounds, Johnson said.

If the Morro Bay project is successful, the nonprofit would operate two facilities.

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