The Orange County Marine Institute, which has received public funding throughout its 18-year history, announced Tuesday it will become a private, nonprofit organization to help raise money for a $25-million to $30-million expansion.
Stanley Cummings, the institute's executive director, said that "privatization began some time ago" and that the institute has been "pulling away" from its joint powers agreement with public agencies since 1983.
As a result of privatizing, Orange County will save $40,000 on maintenance costs at the marine facility and another $21,000 a year for providing accounting and payroll services for the institute's 50 employees.
"We believe that positioning ourselves as a private foundation opens up certain funding doors because of public agency restrictions," Cummings said. "We've always seen this in our future."
Plans call for expanding the 5,500-square-foot building tenfold at a cost of $25 million to $30 million. The idea, Cummings said, is to create an educational jewel by 2000 that will include a simulated underwater research lab where students can spend the night, studying sea life in a 600,000-gallon tank.
"The expansion is an exciting idea," said Dana Point Mayor Karen Lloreda, "because it takes advantage of both the harbor and the reserve we have. It's a wonderful program; nearly all of the schoolchildren in Orange County have made trips to the institute's [sailing ship] Pilgrim."
About 75,000 students visit the marine institute a year, and the expansion is expected to increase that number to 150,000, plus another 6,000 teachers.
During the academic year, two-thirds of student visitors are from Orange County, with the remainder coming from throughout California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, Cummings said.
The marine institute's growth has been an evolutionary process, recalled county Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who as a state senator helped the institute with passage of environmental legislation.
"Through the years, it has helped fill a recreational, educational and environmental need," Bergeson said. "It is recognized as a worldwide resource."
In contrast to aquariums elsewhere, Cummings said, the marine institute's philosophy is to create an "community-based marine education facility," and not just another aquarium.
"For example," Cummings said, "we take our educational programs and integrate them into the facility. An aquarium tucks them into the back out of sight. But we want our visitors to interact here, and the purpose of the design is to take a student and draw them into a deeper commitment to learning."
The seven agencies that made up the joint powers authority monitoring the marine institute were the Rancho Santiago Community College District, North Orange County Community College District, Coast Community College District, Saddleback Community College District, Orange County Department of Education, Dana Point and Orange County.