MYSTIC — Gov. Ned Lamont and Mystic Aquarium President and CEO Dr. Stephen Coan today announced a $31.5 million public-private partnership that will eliminate the aquarium’s debt and allow it to continue functioning through the pandemic.
The package includes $10 million raised in private donations, $14.5 million in debt elimination and a $7 million long-term loan from the state for working capital.
At a press conference at the aquarium, Coan said this partnership will enable the aquarium “not only to survive, but to thrive.”
Tourism is an $18 billion industry in Connecticut, making up 7 or 8 percent of the state’s GDP, according to Commissioner David Lehman of the Department of Economic and Community Development. Mystic Aquarium is one of the largest tourist attractions in the state, drawing 800,000 visitors per year. Sixty percent of its visitors are from out of state. It also provides educational programs for 100,000 students yearly.
“Mystic Aquarium is a great cultural icon,” said Lamont. “What it means in terms of…science, what it means in terms of tourism…”
The aquarium employs 200 full-time and 100 part-time workers. When the venue closed to the public on March 17, it furloughed 80 percent of its staff. Since its reopening on July 1, said Coan, the aquarium has been operating at 50 percent capacity. Coan said this has created a tremendous financial strain, since 80 percent of their budget comes from admissions revenue.
State Senator Heather Somers told the Connecticut Examiner that she spent many nights and weekends on the phone with Coan, working out a way to fund the aquarium during the pandemic. One of the critical issues, she said, was that the aquarium could not close down completely. According to Coan, feeding and caring for the animals costs the aquarium $1.5 million per month.
She said she was impressed by the amount of money that the donors were able to pull together, especially during Covid. “It was Herculean,” she said. Somers worked with the state delegation to put together a request for state funding, which she said Coan then brought to David Lehman.
Rather than providing the $10 million that Coan originally asked for, Lehman asked Coan to raise funds from private donors. Lehman and the governor’s office then assisted in negotiating with the banks, led by Webster Bank, to eliminate the debt the aquarium has carried since it was expanded and renovated in 1997.
“They gave back millions of dollars for [a] new structure,” said Lamont.
Coan said the aquarium is now debt-free, which allows them to save $1.5 million per year.
Lehman said the $7 million loan came from a revolving loan fund within the Manufacturing Assistance Act. The loan is meant to be paid back over a period of 20 years. The interest rate is 3 percent, although principal and interest payments will be deferred for the first three years, according to a spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development.
According to Lehman, the aquarium had to mortgage its assets and some of the property in order to receive the loan from the state. The state has also taken over two seats on the aquarium’s board, one focused on business and finance and one focused on tourism.
When asked whether other venues that suffered from the pandemic, such as theaters, could benefit from a similar loan, Governor Lamont said that any funding from the state would have to be partnered with long-term strategies to ensure that the venue could pay the loan back.
“We’re not just going to throw money at those situations,” said Lamont, “But we are going to find ways that help them get back on their feet and power through until our economy gets back at a hundred percent.”
Lehman praised the aquarium for the amount of funding they were able to raise from private donors. He said he would consider providing similar assistance for other venues if they were willing to take steps like fundraising and restructuring their budgets.
“It really shows a commitment by the board and the community to the institution and right-sizing the balance sheet, not just more debt to pay operating expenses and hoping that the future is better,” said Lehman.
Chris Regan, manager of Olde Mistick Village, said the aquarium is a big draw for tourists who come and spend money at the Village. He said the partnership between the government and the aquarium would have positive effects on the Village as well.
“I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “I think they did a great job.”