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Study: Aquarium is a big draw

Ensuring that the National Aquarium in Baltimore remains the city’s top tourist attraction means continuous brainstorming, tinkering and fundraising by the facility’s nonprofit leadership.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is preparing to open a shark and coral reef exhibit this spring that will add another attraction to the facility that draws 1.4 million visitors a year.

So even though an economic analysis expected to be released Wednesday predicts about 1.4 million people will visit the Inner Harbor fixture this year, CEO John Racanelli says the aquarium is readying for an expensive new shark and coral reef exhibit this spring.

“There’s an important conservation story to tell,” Racanelli said.

The stars of the new exhibit will be blacktip reef sharks, a species found in the tropical coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific oceans. The $12.6 million project was given a $2.5 million head-start by the General Assembly this year, and Racanelli said the aquarium is about halfway to raising the remainder.

“In terms of fundraising, the job is never done,” Racanelli said. “In the nonprofit world, you have to admit you’re always fundraising. But it is on time and on budget.”

According to a study conducted by the Sage Policy Group Inc., the aquarium generates an economic impact of $314 million for the state annually. That makes those fundraising efforts well worth it, said Sage Chairman and CEO Anirban Basu, an economist.

“It’s a signature draw,” Basu said. “One of the things that comes out in the study is a significant proportion of attendees are coming to Baltimore primarily to see the aquarium. The aquarium is not typically the second of third stop. It’s the inducement for someone to come to Baltimore in the first place.”

According to the study, paid for by the aquarium, the Baltimore tourist attraction accounts for 3,300 direct and indirect jobs in the state, including 275 at the aquarium itself. A second National Aquarium facility in Washington, which opened in 1932, supports another 43 jobs.

“The aquarium is a major anchor of the city’s iconic waterfront and is a vitally important piece of Baltimore and Maryland,” Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said in a statement. “It not only generates economic impacts, but also enhances our quality of life by celebrating our connection to the [Chesapeake] Bay and the sea, which makes Maryland a special place to live.”

The main facility in Baltimore, which opened in 1981, generates about $11.7 million in tax revenue directly through things like ticket sales and indirectly through purchases like hotel bookings. The aquarium generates $5.6 million annually in tax revenue for Baltimore.

Much of this is new money, Basu said, because almost two-thirds of the aquarium’s visitors are not Maryland residents. About 26 percent of visitors come from outside the mid-Atlantic, including 6 percent who come from outside the country.

About 88 percent of all visitors say they came to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium, the study found.

“It’s new money in Maryland,” Racanelli said. “We’re trying to strike a balance between the tourist who comes from afar and the Marylanders and Baltimoreans.”

Part of that balance included changing how the aquarium’s dolphin show operated, Racanelli said.

In May, the aquarium remodeled its 1,200-seat dolphin amphitheater — to the tune of $250,000 — and did away with multiple shows each day, accessible only if visitors bought a ticket to the show.

Now, the amphitheater stays open all day and holds up to 900 people, who can come and go without paying an extra amount.

Racanelli jokes that the change has earned positive reviews from the dolphins, free of their show schedule, and it’s been OK with humans, too.

“What you need to do is keep renewing yourself, for two reasons,” Racanelli said. “Continue to deliver on your mission, and inspire.”