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Aquarium asks city for financial aid

The Pier attraction wants forgiveness of $20,223 in rent and $8,000 in fees.

By Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008


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ST. PETERSBURG - The Pier Aquarium, cut off from the city's payroll because of statewide mandated tax cuts, is seeking a new kind of handout to stay financially afloat.

The nonprofit wants the City Council to forgive $20,223 in rent plus the city's share of the aquarium's admission fees in 2008, or about $8,000.

The money would help make up for a $91,000 loss in subsidies, which were terminated after the Legislature called for local governments to slash 2007 budgets.

"We are here to ask for your help," said E. Howard Rutherford, executive director of the Pier Aquarium, during a council committee meeting Thursday. "We are here to ask for an investment on your end to help us get through this lean year."

The nonprofit is the first to return to the council and ask for alternative funding after the city cut half of its social service subsidies and two-thirds of the city's arts subsidies - more than $2-million overall.

But other nonprofits are struggling, too, and city leaders say it is only a matter of time before other organizations turn to the council for help.

This is the first time the aquarium has ever asked the city for debt forgiveness. The Pier, a city-owned facility, has leased space to the aquarium for 20 years.

Rutherford said the nonprofit has tried to reduce operating costs by cutting staff, eliminating raises and increasing admission prices, but that has not been enough to make up for the loss of city funding.

Recent aquarium improvements, approved before the organization knew the city would cut off its funding, have also contributed to the organization's fiscal challenges.

The aquarium underwent a $100,000 renovation in February 2007. The 2,000-square-foot facility also recently expanded its summer camp program, Rutherford said. .

Without the city's help, the aquarium will have to cut educational programming and further reduce staff, Rutherford said.

But council members say they want local nonprofits to become less dependent on city funding and more fiscally savvy.

Forgiving the aquarium's debt would undermine that effort, said council member Wengay Newton.

"If we do this, we set a precedent," he said. "Where is the money going to come from?"

Yet, despite the council's reluctance, debt forgiveness isn't unheard of in St. Petersburg.

In December, the council agreed to forgive a $260,000 loan to the Florida International Museum, and three years before that, itagreed to forgive $1-million in unpaid rent.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 19, 2008, 16:20:46]


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