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    Florida Aquarium sloshes through a tough fiscal year

    Revenue fell short. Attendance dropped. Expenses surged. But thanks to outside contributions, the aquarium ended up in the black.

    By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 16, 2002

    TAMPA -- The Florida Aquarium reported a profit for the year, but the achievement came with a gracious helping hand.

    At the annual meeting Friday, CEO Thom Stork reported that the 7-year-old aquarium had a net operating profit of $17,225 for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

    This is the fourth straight budget year the aquarium has finished in the black.

    But the report is glowing only on paper.

    "This was a tough, tough year," Stork told directors and trustees.

    Overall, revenues and contributions fell short of expected goals. Attendance dropped 6 percent from last year, to 582,415.

    The aquarium had unexpected expenses: a sudden surge in property insurance premiums and a nationwide search for Stork, the new CEO who started work in April.

    A $700,000 grant from the city of Tampa kept the aquarium afloat. Taxpayers took over the aquarium's debts in 1996.

    In September, the aquarium dipped into a private reserve fund, taking $300,000 from the Taylor Foundation, established by banker John Taylor and his family. Taylor died in 1986.

    The $2-million fund was promised for 2006 as a reserve if the aquarium couldn't pay off its bond debt.

    For 2003, Stork is optimistic.

    "This is our year now!" he said at the luncheon.

    The aquarium already has secured $850,000 from the city.

    It plans to advertise heavily -- on HARTline buses and at Muvico theaters. It plans to rent its facility more and aggressively pursue contributors. Starting Monday, behind-the-scene tours, which used to be free, will cost $5 for nonmembers, $3 for members.

    The aquarium is also developing new programs with theme-park appeal.

    On Jan. 3, it officially opens the much-talked about "Dive with Sharks" event, which will allow certified divers into a shark tank for $150.

    Next fall, Explore-a-Shore will open. Located near the aquarium, the project will have horseshoe crab touch tanks, fountains that shoot water at kids and a tiki bar for adults.

    "We have a new mantra at this venue," Stork said. "We are going to make you proud, as you should be. This aquarium is a gem for the community."

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