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    Aquarium boss knows the territory

    Thomas Stork worked in Tampa for 25 years and always planned on returning.

    [Times photo: Fraser Hale]
    Thomas Stork, who was named chief executive of the Florida Aquarium, examines one of the exhibits Thursday. He will earn $153,000 annually.

    By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 5, 2002

    TAMPA -- Thomas Stork, a marketer who made his name promoting Florida's theme parks, will soon be running the Florida Aquarium.

    Stork, 53, said he agreed to become chief executive of the taxpayer-subsidized aquarium because he wanted to return to Tampa, where he worked for 25 years at Busch Gardens.

    "Our intention always was to come back," Stork said Thursday after the aquarium's executive committee voted to hire him. "It's a very personal thing. I am passionate about this community."

    Stork, who most recently was a vice president at Sea World in Orlando, will start his new job April 22. He will earn $153,000 annually.

    He takes over as the 7-year-old aquarium finally appears to be moving toward stable ground financially. It eked out a $3,000 profit this fiscal year, its third straight in the black. Attendance rose to 619,208, up from 554,120.

    But the aquarium faces major hurdles before it can operate as profitably as Florida's theme parks. City taxpayers took over the aquarium's debts in 1996, and still give the facility $700,000 annually.

    Finances were so bad when the aquarium hired its last CEO in 1998 that the search took more than 10 months. That pick, Jeff Swanagan, earned praise for turning around the aquarium's business.

    He introduced new exhibits such as "Frights of the Forest," which showcased the aquarium more as an entertainment complex than an educational facility.

    When Swanagan announced his resignation last year to launch a new aquarium in Atlanta, it took only 60 days to find a replacement.

    "It has been a very easy job to get the A players in the industry to consider this a career opportunity," said Mark Strom, president of Search Advisors International Corp., which conducted the search that found Stork. "We were able to get people to answer the phone."

    The last time, "no one wanted to take the job as the lead violinist on the Titanic," he said.

    Stork, who left his Busch Gardens job two years ago, won the aquarium job because he already had ties to Tampa and knew the market well, Strom said. While he hadn't run an aquarium, he oversaw a $20-million budget as vice president of marketing at Sea World and helped Busch Entertainment Corp. develop a new theme park, Discovery Cove.

    Stork broke new ground at Busch Gardens by selling travel agents discounted tickets to the parks. At the time, most theme parks held tight control over their tickets and wouldn't discount them.

    But Stork's idea worked, and is now an industry staple.

    "Thom is an individual we felt could hit the ground with his feet moving," Strom said.

    Stork wanted the aquarium post so much that he quit his job at Sea World in January so he could spent all of his time trying to land the aquarium job. At the time of his resignation, Sea World said he left to pursue other opportunities.

    "I thought it was a bold move," said Stork's boss, Keith Kasen, general manager and executive vice president of Sea World Orlando. "But I knew he was really anxious to get back to Tampa."

    While Stork was working in Orlando, his wife, Donna, commuted 140 miles a day to work at Busch Gardens. She spent three to six hours on the road a day.

    Stork will face challenges when he takes over the aquarium, which has a $2-million operating budget. Aquariums across the United States have been hard hit by the slump in the tourist economy since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    Stork said he intends to increase attendance and make the aquarium a "world-class facility," but provided few details.

    Jane Balletine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, said the future of the Florida Aquarium looks promising.

    Once isolated in an empty Channelside district, the aquarium's neighbors now include a cruise terminal, the shops at Channelside and the Marriott Waterside hotel. In October, the city plans to open a trolley line connecting the aquarium to Ybor City.

    -- Staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this story.

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