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Tank Wars : Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara are racing forward with plans to build state-of-the-art aquariums. But experts predict it will be a winner-take-all contest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first commercial aquarium in the United States was opened in 1856 by legendary showman P.T. Barnum, who recognized the public’s fascination with the mysteries of the ocean. But Barnum proved more adept at gauging popular taste than finding adequate aquatic technology. His fish died, his aquarium went out of business, and his famous zinger--"There’s a sucker born every minute"--suddenly applied to him.

Nearly 14 decades later, aquatic technology now allows complex ocean ecosystems to thrive in artificial environments, making modern aquariums as attractive as an NFL franchise. Today, the only suckers in aquariums are the slimy creatures attached to the glass.

“Aquariums are hot, that’s for sure,” said Richard Lyon, a nationally known aquarium consultant based in Los Angeles.

Aquarium fever was sparked by the financial and cultural success of Baltimore’s National Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, both of which opened in the early ‘80s. Other cities saw the potential of an environmentally correct, practically sure-fire tourist attraction.

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Since 1990, the number of major aquariums in the United States has grown from about 15 to 20. The five newest aquariums drew a combined total of 4.5 million customers last year.

More aquariums are in the works. In California, the cities of Long Beach, Sacramento, San Pedro, Pismo Beach and Stockton have projects on the front burner. But nowhere has aquarium fever hit swifter or harder than in a concentrated slice of the coast encompassing Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara.

In the span of a few weeks this summer, each city waded into the action by announcing multimillion-dollar proposals to build state-of-the-art aquariums.

Withdrawing $10,000 from its treasury in June, Ventura commissioned a detailed plan for a Ventura Harbor marine educational center and crowed over Jean-Michel Cousteau’s connection with the project; Oxnard, with the support of Port Hueneme and Ventura County, countered a month later with a proposal for a Channel Islands Harbor facility similar in size and scope to Monterey’s world-class aquarium; and Santa Barbara got into the act a week after Oxnard with a proposal for a deluxe waterfront complex complete with aquarium, maritime museum, IMAX theater and Southwest Museum branch.

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Politicians took sides and turned cartwheels. After hearing Montecito-based Rising Hawk Productions pitch the aquarium venture during a Ventura City Council meeting, Councilman Gary Tuttle couldn’t believe his community’s good luck, saying, “I’m a little humbled. Here we sit in Ventura, and they come to us with a project like this.”

Excitement and expectations are running high in the early stages of the three-city aquarium race, but it’s likely to end in disappointment. Various experts predict a winner-take-all contest, with the first city to break ground probably knocking the other two out of the tank.

“The first one in would deter the others,” said Oxnard developer Martin V. (Bud) Smith, who is spearheading the Channel Islands effort and pitching in with his own money.

Smith also said he didn’t think “all three should be built.” Aquarium experts agree, questioning whether the public needs or would support a trio of aquariums--though each would be slightly different--in a space of 35 miles.

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“It sounds like overkill to me,” said Suzanne Lawrenz-Miller, director of the small Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, which opened in 1935.

A lone aquarium in this area, however, would probably clean up, experts say. Right now, there is no major aquarium in the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. That means marine professionals can’t handle the public’s demand for up-close oceanic encounters.

“We have to turn down hundreds of school kids a year,” said Carol Spears of the National Park Service, which conducts tide-pool demonstrations at its Ventura Harbor Visitors Center.

Promoters see a local aquarium as an all-day destination for students and families, predicting it will become the biggest tourist attraction in Ventura County. A Channel Islands aquarium is projected to attract as many as 1.5 million visitors a year, meaning a potential annual infusion of $100 million into the area’s economy, according to estimates based on California Division of Tourism projections.

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Many local hotels, restaurants and shops would enjoy an economic bonanza. But others might not like the invasion of cars and people. In Monterey, numerous merchants near the aquarium reported a dramatic drop-off in business when many of their regular customers were scared off by the traffic.

The city of Ventura’s not-in-my-back-yard attitude would undoubtedly play a factor in gaining approval for an aquarium. Ventura Keys’ residents recently stopped the city’s attempt to put a southbound freeway ramp on Harbor Boulevard--the main artery to the harbor--so the city would have to expect sensitivity to any project bringing an increase in traffic.

While city hearings and environmental impact reports are many months away, Ventura appears to have taken an early lead in the three-city aquarium race, with Oxnard close behind and Santa Barbara bringing up the rear.

Factors favoring Ventura’s marine center proposal include the existence of an undeveloped parcel of 20 acres at the harbor, freeway accessibility and the lowest priced proposal--an estimated $11 million. It also has a fired-up City Council, which can expedite permits and look for funds.

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“The city has money it can put into the (aquarium) project,” Ventura Councilman Greg Carson said. The aquarium will probably have an auditorium, so the city might be able to divert some or all of its $9-million convention-center fund into the marine complex. “It’s definitely a possibility,” Carson said.

The Ventura project is the brainchild of Al Fiori, a former assistant professor of art at Cal State Los Angeles, who runs Rising Hawk Productions and designs museums and expo exhibits. Both Fiori and Jean-Michel Cousteau live in the Santa Barbara area, but Ventura County has been receptive to them. In addition to the Ventura aquarium, they’re collaborating on a Native American Museum proposal in Thousand Oaks.

Although Cousteau has let Fiori link his name to the aquarium proposal, he won’t formally get on board until the project is further along, says Leo McCarthy, vice president of Cousteau’s Santa Barbara TV production company. “Let’s see how it develops. When we see the design and the feasibility study, that’s when Jean-Michel will get 110% behind it.”

Oxnard’s aquarium--the most ambitious among the dueling proposals at 150,000 square feet and with a possible $60-million price tag--will also benefit from strong governmental support. But the project has problems the others don’t: poor freeway access and location. It’s a 4.2-mile journey on Victoria Avenue from the Ventura Freeway to Channel Islands Harbor.

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Bob Paternoster, project manager of the proposed $110-million Queensway Bay Aquarium in Long Beach, said Channel Islands Harbor is “at the end of nowhere.” Consultant Richard Lyon, in an opinion paper written for the county--at a cost of $6,000--agreed with that perception. “People think (the harbor) is not that accessible,” Lyon said.

But the project will get a boost from Oxnard, which is known for its development-friendly City Council, and from the county, which operates the harbor and is funding the aquarium studies. It has spent about $30,000 so far. Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn, who represents Oxnard, has caught aquarium fever and sees no major hurdles except for the financing.

“We need an attraction at the harbor,” Flynn said.

Oxnard’s ace in the hole is Bud Smith, who has been through the development wars more than a few times with projects such as Casa Sirena resort at Channel Islands Harbor, the Vineyard Avenue skyscrapers and the Wagon Wheel complex. Smith has promised to do “whatever it takes” to build the aquarium, said Sue Van Camp, his assistant.

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The Oxnard and Ventura projects are going full speed ahead, and if everything falls into place, including financing and environmental reviews, construction could begin within two years.

But Santa Barbara is on a long, uphill climb. Faced with formidable environmental blockades from the city, the Wright family, which is developing the 18-acre waterfront complex, hopes the aquarium “is on line by the turn of the century,” said project director John Cahill.

Even that may be optimistic. Lyon said the average time for an aquarium to go from idea to reality is 11 years.

As the aquarium race gets into the committee stage and feasibility reports start coming back emblazoned with little happy faces, the participants will have to search for serious money. The county and the city of Ventura say they will look into issuing revenue bonds; Cahill says he will not ask Santa Barbara for funds but will look for investors.

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“Aquariums are proven generators of revenue,” Cahill said.

Another entry in the race: the National Park Service. It wants to piggyback along with one of the three aquarium projects, raise a few million dollars of its own and build a Channel Islands National Park Environmental and Cultural Education Center.

Although the Ventura Harbor site would be a natural because of the presence of the Visitors Center, the park service has “no commitment” with any group, Carol Spears said.

The competition among the three cities is unleashing old geographic rivalries, along with barbs and counter-barbs. After hearing that Supervisor Flynn doubted Ventura’s “wherewithal” to build an aquarium because of the harbor’s past financial problems, Ventura’s Carson laughed, brought up the county’s recent budget crunch and urged Flynn to “keep an open mind about our idea.”

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Not everyone thinks the aquarium race will produce only one winner. Ventura’s smaller aquarium--with its emphasis on education and research--could complement Oxnard’s larger, more populist attraction. “Our proposal is different from theirs,” said Lauren DeChant, Fiori’s associate at Rising Hawk Productions.

Cahill, in Santa Barbara, says his project is going forward regardless of what happens in Oxnard and Ventura. “The Santa Barbara market is psychologically different from the Ventura market,” he said. “Ventura is looked at as the far reaches of the L.A. area; Santa Barbara as the southernmost boundary of the central coast.”

But three aquariums bunched together? Urban planner and author William Fulton of Ventura thinks Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara have gone overboard.

“Once again, competition between cities for economic development has reached ludicrous proportions,” Fulton said. “I hope somebody really does an aquarium, but all three of these towns is a ridiculous idea.”

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Some experts believe the national market will become saturated and aquariums will lose their appeal. “Someday, there will be so many aquariums it will become detrimental,” said Don Wilkie, retired aquarium director for Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. “If you have too many aquariums, they’re too common.”

When all is said and done, it is possible that none of the three aquariums will ever hold a fish. Many aquarium projects start off with a flourish but then disappear beneath a sea of headaches.

“Aquariums are being talked about all over the place,” Lyon said. “Twice a year I hear about guys doing an aquarium in the L.A. area. There’s always a lot of talk. But you don’t know how serious people are until it’s (money time). It all comes down to having the site and the money.”

A three-city race may even be a good thing. “It makes people act,” Lyon said, “instead of sitting back and thinking about it.”

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Tiny Bubbles

Are aquariums cooling off?

The country’s top aquariums are suffering a small attendance decline so far this year compared to 1993, says Ken Peterson, spokesman for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“This is a poor year,” Peterson said.

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When it opened in 1984 at a cost of $55 million--a gift from the Packard family--the Monterey facility attracted 2.4 million visitors. It has averaged 1.7 million annually since, with 1.6 million projected this year.

“There was a time when an aquarium was a golden goose,” Peterson said. “But I don’t know if that’s a given anymore. It’s not a guarantee of financial success or an influx of tourists.”

Dueling Aquariums

PROPOSED: Ventura Marine Educational Center.

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ESTIMATED COST: $11 million.

POSSIBLE FINANCING: Revenue bonds, private investors, city funds.

SIZE: 60,000 square feet.

LOCATION: 20-acre site at Ventura Harbor.

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DESCRIPTION: More of a research facility than a display aquarium, the center may include interactive exhibits, undersea video production and working laboratory.

STATUS: A $10,000 study by Rising Hawk Productions detailing fund-raising strategies and aquarium design will be presented to the Ventura City Council in mid-October.

PRINCIPALS: Montecito-based Rising Hawk Productions, which originated the proposal, is run by designer Al Fiori, former assistant professor of art at Cal State Los Angeles. Attached to the project is undersea explorer and TV personality Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famed Jacques Cousteau. Jean-Michel Cousteau, a California resident for 26 years, will move his office to the center and plans to re-create the Santa Barbara Channel environment indoors “so students and teachers can be in tune and up to the minute with what goes on in there.” But don’t expect to see dolphins and whales. “I would disassociate myself from the project if marine mammals were used,” Cousteau said.

PROPOSED: Channel Islands Harbor Aquarium.

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ESTIMATED COST: $20 million-$60 million.

POSSIBLE FINANCING: Revenue bonds, corporate sponsors, private investors.

SIZE: 100,000-150,000 square feet.

LOCATION: Three-acre site at Channel Islands Harbor.

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DESCRIPTION: A primary tank would contain marine life from Southern California coastal waters, with smaller tanks used to display local aquatic life. Modeled on the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

STATUS: Ventura County is paying the Lyon Group $20,000-$25,000 for a study on the theme, design and financing of the aquarium.

PRINCIPALS: Oxnard’s biggest developer, Martin V. (Bud) Smith, is the catalyst. The aquarium consultant is Richard Lyon, who lists the Monterey Bay Aquarium expansion among his recent projects. The county, which operates the harbor, and the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme are backing the proposal. Smith called the proposal “far superior to anything anyone else is planning from Santa Barbara on down.” A possible roadblock: The developers would have to lease nearby land from the Navy to provide adequate parking. If the Navy doesn’t go along, “the project may not go forward,” Supervisor John K. Flynn said. So far, “the Navy hasn’t said yes or no but seems cooperative.” The county will fast-track the aquarium. “If we can’t get things together to start construction in one or two years, then we’ll miss an opportunity,” Flynn said.

PROPOSED: Santa Barbara Aquarium.

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ESTIMATED COST: $24 million.

POSSIBLE FINANCING: Private investors, state and federal cultural bond money.

SIZE: 80,000 square feet.

LOCATION: 18-acre site in waterfront area.

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DESCRIPTION: Interpretive facility focusing on the Santa Barbara Channel.

STATUS: The proposal won’t be formerly presented to the city of Santa Barbara until next year.

PRINCIPALS: William and Jenny Wright of Santa Barbara want to develop their 18 acres with an aquarium, maritime museum, restaurant, Native American museum, hotel and movie theater in a complex called Cabrillo Plaza. Project director is John Cahill and aquarium consultant is Leighton Taylor, a marine biologist and noted author of books on aquariums. While the new Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans went from conception to reality in only three years, no one expects Santa Barbara’s to go up that quickly. But Taylor is undaunted by Santa Barbara’s intimidating environmental-review process and optimistic about his project. “For every five aquarium (projects) that get kicked around, maybe one gets built, but we’ve got a very, very good chance,” he said.


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