Contributing Reporter

It was a tough year for Long Beach in 1994. Walt Disney Co. decided against building a water-themed attraction in the city, and the recession and defense cutbacks were throwing thousands of local people out of work.

Believing the city's future lay in two areas as a port and a resort Long Beach officials began a corporate pilgrimage, seeking sponsorship for an ambitious plan to build an aquarium as part of its Queensway Bay revitalization project.

For nearly 12 months, City Manager Jim Hankla and Queensbay Bay project director Bob Paternoster carted around a scale model of the aquarium, searching in vain for a financial partner. No luck.

Then, toward the end of the year, Hankla got a call from Marvin Suomi, at that time executive vice president of the engineering company Kajima International. Suomi had heard about the aquarium project and had an idea how to finance it: with city-issued revenue bonds.

"If Kajima hadn't walked into our office," says Paternoster, "we'd probably still be fumbling around."

Instead, the city of Long Beach plans to debut an aquarium the fourth largest in the U.S. in June, thanks to its decision to finance the project itself with $117.5 million in municipal revenue bonds.

City officials say they are confident the attraction will be a success, though the revenue bonds themselves were rated BBB just a step above junk-bond status.

The bonds will be repaid with aquarium revenues, backed up by hotel bed-tax income. For bonds of that nature the BBB is fairly typical, said David Hitchcock, a director at Standard & Poor's Ratings Services in New York.

Bob Torrez, the city's chief financial officer, boasts that Long Beach has the only aquarium in the nation to receive an investment-grade rating. And Mayor Beverly O'Neill points out that the bonds were sold out in just a few hours.

"The aquarium is good for everyone," O'Neill said. "It will become one of the icons of our city. It has family entertainment, conservation, and education."

Even so, tourist attractions hold inherent risks (remember the Spruce Goose?), especially if the economy takes a turn for the worse or the project doesn't quite catch fire, noted Greg Hise, an assistant professor and urban historian at USC.

"People imagine that ballparks and aquariums are quick fixes," he said. "They're not. (Long Beach officials are) investing everything they have and if it doesn't work out, they're in trouble."

Hankla said the aquarium needs to draw 1.3 million visitors annually to break even. That's 300,000 more people than visited the city's premiere attraction, the Queen Mary, last year, but significantly less than the 2.2 million projected by Coopers & Lybrand LLP.

Given the huge popularity of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the non-profit foundation set up to operate the Long Beach attraction is shooting for 2 million visitors at $13 each in the first year.

"I think it's a realizable goal," says Warren Illif, president and chief executive of the Aquarium of the Pacific Foundation, which was set up to run the attraction.

To help assure a good opening, the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific and the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau are cooperating on a marketing program.

Jim Hancock, the aquarium's vice president of marketing, would not disclose the promotional budget, but said it would include radio ads, billboards, bus advertisements, and even banners on the streets. There will be a small TV advertising campaign starting two weeks before the June opening, he said.

Hancock is also offering tour packages and he is pursuing corporate donors. The aquarium also includes an 11,000-square-foot Great Hall of the Pacific that can be rented out for various events.

"The space will be in constant use," Hancock said.

The Long Beach facility will focus on the marine life of the Pacific Ocean. With its striking wave-like design, the 156,735-square-foot structure faces the ocean and is within walking distance of the convention center and hotels. It was designed, in part, by one of the companies that was involved in the design of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Esherick, Homsey, Dodge and Davis of San Francisco.

The aquarium, which is essentially completed, features 17 major exhibit tanks and 30 smaller exhibits that house over 550 different species, including leopard sharks, giant sea bass, white sea bass and giant spined sea stars.

The seal and sea lion exhibit is already popular with the aquarium staff.

The aquarium is a key element of the city's Queensway Bay project, a 300-acre development on the harbor that is on land built up from dredging the port. In addition to the aquarium, Rainbow Pier, a mult-level esplanade with shops and restaurants, will be a featured destination. An Imax theater and dinner cruises are also in the works.

With a few months left to tweak things, City Manager Hankla said he can finally relax.

"The risk," Jim Hankla says, "has diminished by a measure of magnitude. The aquarium is finished and the systems are functioning."

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