S.C. Aquarium sheds its debt

CHARLESTON - As the S.C. Aquarium celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, a big white alligator moves in, former Vice President Al Gore visits and - this just in - the attraction sheds what remained of its $12 million in debt.

The nonprofit attraction opened in 2000 with a $69 million price tag, financed by public and private partnerships but leaving a $12 million gap temporarily filled by bank loans.

The aquarium paid off half the loans through business operations and half through private donations, including $1.35 million through a matching grant from the Spaulding Paolozzi Foundation, named for the late Countess Alicia Spaulding Paolozzi, who helped launch Spoleto Festival USA.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley likened the aquarium's former debt to hiking with a 50-pound backpack. "If you could take the 50 pounds out, then you would really begin to soar," he said at a reception Thursday announcing the end of that burden.

Credited with pushing the project along, Riley said he gets goose bumps when he sees children participating in the aquarium's classroom programs after studying in anticipation of that day.

"Little minds, they've been studying and anticipating that moment," he said. "We don't remember life in years or months. We remember it in moments."

Aquarium board chairman Hilton Smith welcomed two past chairmen and the wife of a third, the late industrialist Jerry Zucker. In one of their final conversations, Zucker told Smith, "We must pay off the debt. We must make it our top priority."

Thanking Anita Zucker Thursday, Smith said, "You know he's looking down today."

The payoff follows a tough time for attractions, as the economic recession ate into vacation budgets and luxury expenses. In late 2008 and early last year the aquarium required that employees take 10 unpaid days off, after attendance dropped by more than 6 percent between January and November 2008.

In March 2009 the aquarium opened its Penguin Planet exhibit featuring four warm-weather birds. Visitor numbers climbed by nearly 12 percent for the year, and the aquarium pulled in nearly three times as much from operations during the first three quarters of 2009 compared with the same time in 2008.

Smith said the financial freedom will help the attraction provide more for its visitors in the future. The aquarium extended its Penguin Planet exhibit through October and will showcase an albino alligator in a renovated gallery next month. It plans to open a four-dimensional theater, where guests can feel a dolphin spray water or a fish swim across their feet, in May.

On the practical side, paying off the debt means the attraction can move on to capital improvements, such as repainting and re-carpeting, Smith said.

Thursday's announcement took place in front of the Aquarium's Carolina Seas exhibit, recently overhauled to depict the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia coast. Its designer, Sally Miller, put on a dive suit during the announcement and, from inside the tank, toasted the occasion with Smith.

The aquarium will honor Gore at its Environmental Stewardship Awards banquet this spring.