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UPDATED: Legislators ask state for $5 million so Mystic Aquarium can 'remain in operation'

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Mystic — Sixteen state legislators from southeastern Connecticut have asked Gov. Ned Lamont to provide at least $5 million in state funding to Mystic Aquarium so it can “remain in operation.”

The delegation sent a letter Tuesday to Lamont not only asking for help for the aquarium but an additional $20 million to support tourism, arts and culture.

“The Aquarium is in need of $2 million in state funding to replace the SBA loan (it only partially received) and will need at least $3 million in additional state funding in order to remain in operation,” the letter states.

The aquarium has long been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state and an important part of the local economy, while the state is facing massive budget deficits over the next few years.

The aquarium held a soft reopening for members Wednesday and is scheduled to reopen outdoor exhibits to the public on Friday.

Asked if the aquarium will have to close if it does not receive the funding, aquarium spokeswoman Dale Wolbrink said Wednesday night the aquarium has "every intention of continuing to operate."

"Many cultural institutions and businesses are struggling right now as a result of COVID-19. What makes the Aquarium situation unique is the fact that we have living animals that require around the clock care every day of the week. Many of these animals are federally protected, endangered species. So we cannot just turn off the lights and shut down. The cost of continuing the operation without revenue is extraordinary and we do not have unlimited reserves. Certainly the loss of the SBA loan, which would basically  assure two to three months of operations was a real blow," she said. 

Asked if the funding shortfall was solely the result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic or if it worsened a preexisting financial problem, Wolbrink said the aquarium had an "outstanding year in 2019 and a strong start to 2020."

"We would not be having this conversation if there was not a pandemic. This is the first time in our history that we have closed down like this for an extended period of time," she said. The aquarium is a nonprofit, mission-driven organization. "Our financial model is not unlike many colleges or universities — we depend on gate revenue to fund that mission, just as many colleges and universities depend upon tuition. April is a key month for generating revenue and, of course, we were closed down."

Even with the reopening, the aquarium will be operating at only 30% to 50% for most of the summer months, she said.

Wolbrink said the aquarium initally furloughed 80% of its 260 employees but has brought back some people for the first phase of reopening. 

In their letter, the bipartisan group of legislators thanked Lamont for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic but said “As we enter this next phase of this crisis, however, Eastern Connecticut again needs your specific attention, this time for the Mystic Aquarium.”

They pointed out the economic impact of the aquarium since its opening in 1976 and called it part of a “regional tourism cluster” that includes Mystic Seaport, retail outlets and restaurants that comprise almost 20% of the Southeastern Connecticut economy and employs nearly 30,000 people.

The letter states that even though the aquarium was accepted by the Small Business Administration for a promised $2 million loan, only 25% of the loan was funded. It says says the decreased amount has put the aquarium and its 250 full-time workers “in a precarious spot.”

Wolbrink said the SBA is limiting disbursements from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program to under $500,000, even though the program was offering loans of up to $2 million.

On Wednesday morning, state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said that it is likely the aquarium will need closer to $7 million in funding. She said if the region loses the aquarium, it also would lose the $115 million it generates for the local economy. She also pointed out the importance of the aquarium’s many research and education initiatives. “We can’t afford to lose the aquarium,” she said.

Asked if the aquarium would close without the funding, Somers said, “that is not an option.”

“Eastern Connecticut continues to have among the lowest recorded levels of COVID-19 infections in the state. We have done our part to flatten the curve, and our businesses have adhered to the policies that you set forth in your executive orders. Now we ask for your commitment, Governor, in shoring-up one of Connecticut’s premier family and tourist destinations in our region. The Aquarium needs this assistance in a 'whatever it takes' fashion. It is imperative that we keep this jewel of Connecticut here!” the legislators wrote.

Those signing the letter, in addition to Somers, were Sens. Cathy Osten, Paul Formica and Norm Needleman and Reps. Kevin Ryan, Kate Rotella, Christine Conley, Joe de la Cruz, Anthony Nolan, Devin Carney, Emmett Riley, Holly Cheeseman, Brian Smith, Mike France, Kathleen McCarty and Doug Dubitsky.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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