SEWARD (AP) -- The Alaska SeaLife Center was born with the mission of saving the endangered Steller sea lion and other marine mammals of the North Pacific. As it turns out, the Steller sea lion is saving the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Ushered into being by then-Gov. Wally Hickel in the cash-and-angst era of the early '90s after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Seward aquarium opened three years ago this month. It was soon apparent that few tough questions had been asked about the business plan for a facility that nearly everybody seemed to want.
A steady stream of visitors was supposed to make the $56 million showplace a break-even operation. But tourists didn't show up like they were supposed to. For several years, the sea-life center hovered on the brink of financial ruin.
Now those perilous times are receding into the past. A flood of federal research money aimed at North Pacific sea lions has solved the center's budget problems -- and helped settle a long-standing question about whether the facility was primarily a science center or a tourist attraction.
The sea-life center opened in May 1998. Its dual mission: do first-class research on the North Pacific, where marine mammals were in trouble, and also draw visitors eager to see and learn about the captive animals under study. Visitors would pay three-fourths of the operating costs.
By October, the center's directors called an emergency retreat on an island in Resurrection Bay to deal with a serious cash-flow crisis. Through loans and delayed payments to vendors and the city of Seward, they kept the doors open in the months that followed but just barely.
Visitor goals in the business plan turned out to be a mirage. In the first year, 262,000 visitors had been expected to buy tickets. But only 193,0000 showed up. Then, instead of growing as predicted, the numbers declined sharply.
Meanwhile, some of the researchers who had been expected to flock to the cold-water labs grumbled about the cost of traveling to isolated Seward. Those who did show had their rents jacked up in a scramble for new income. Complaints arose that in the built-in conflict of cultures at the Seward center, the scientists were losing out to the Sea World promoters.
''It came down to questions like, 'Do we give the animals names or not?' '' said Christine DeCourtney, the center's external affairs director. ''The compromise was that we give them names, but you won't find a 'Woody the sea lion' doll at the Discovery Shop.''
Foundations and corporations that had been expected to pay off the construction debt grew skittish, the aquarium tanks sprung leaks and word-of-mouth further depressed visitation. By last summer, the number of visitors had fallen to only a little more than half of what was originally foreseen.
Several wealthy friends of the facility, including Hickel, co-signed a bank loan to keep the doors open after the second year.
And then the sea lions saved the day.
Steller sea lions once thrived in the North Pacific, but their numbers have plummeted mysteriously in recent decades. They continued to decline as the Seward facility was born.
This was bad news not only for the sea lions but for Alaska's $1-billion-a-year groundfish fleet, which faced increasing restriction to protect the endangered marine mammals. It did not, however, turn out to be altogether bad news for the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Citing the need for more sea lion research to stave off fishing closures, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has pumped $32 million in federal funds into the Seward aquarium over the past two years. Much of that money has been used to pay off the center's operating and construction debts, as well as the privately backed loan.
This winter, as pressure on the fishing industry mounted, Stevens held up the entire federal budget to wrest more funding for sea lion research. That included $6 million in research grants earmarked specifically for Seward -- essentially turning the nonprofit aquarium into a research arm of the federal government.
Together with a new Stevens-sponsored role in distributing additional millions of dollars for future research, the science grants have turned Seward's struggling waterfront attraction into a major player in the booming field of North Pacific research.
Flirting with solvency at last, the center is planning to upgrade exhibits and turn around the steady visitor decline. ''I think this summer, and especially next summer, the numbers are going to start going back up again,'' said sea-life center executive director Tylan Schrock, who now expects science to cover almost two-thirds of the operating budget.
Stevens' efforts have raised the public stake in the Seward aquarium to more than $71 million, nearly twice what its promoters originally requested.
''I wasn't happy about being asked to bail it out,'' Stevens said in a recent interview. ''But I was happy that it was there when we needed it to go into this new phase of basic research.''
That seems to be the attitude of other sea-life center backers today. They are looking ahead, not back. No one is ready to apologize for getting the waterfront project off the ground with a phantom business plan.
''You have to wonder whether they didn't pick the visitation numbers that they needed after looking at the budget,'' conceded Scott Janke, Seward's city manager and a board member since 1998. ''But to me, it's not worth second-guessing at this point.''
The original plan had been to create a well-stocked laboratory available for rent by scientists who got their funding elsewhere, said University of Alaska biologist Michael Castellini, the center's first science director. But with direct appropriations from Congress, he said, the Seward nonprofit has become a virtual funding agency itself, putting scientists on its own payroll to do research.
''With the increased federal allocation to research, they are doing quite well,'' Castellini said.
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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