The Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, a gem that has stood in Dallas for about 84 years, is set to close for good because of substantial financial losses brought on by the pandemic.
The aquarium opened in 1936 as the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park, making it the first in the state of Texas. But faced with low turnout, it has been seeing revenue losses for several years now. The pandemic may have just been the final nail in the coffin.
“The reality is that the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park has never been a profitable operation, even when the city was running it,” Gregg Hudson, president and CEO of the Dallas Zoo, said in an email to the Observer. “The challenges in sustaining a positive financial situation for the aquarium predated the pandemic.”
Before COVID-19, the aquarium was seeing anywhere between $150,000-$300,000 in losses each year. Closing in March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus just about doubled this amount. The losses for this year are now close to $600,000, Hudson said.
Back in mid-August, the Dallas Zoo announced it would furlough a quarter of its staff, about 100 people, and cut pay by 15 percent for senior employees as cost-saving measures during the pandemic, according to The Dallas Morning News. Additionally, the zoo froze 75 open positions and said it had plans to close the aquarium and put its multi-million dollar Adventure Safari Monorail project on hold.
From 2009 to 2010, the city was looking to revamp the aquarium because of continued dwindling interest. After other plans proved too expensive, the city decided to put $10 million into transforming the forgotten Fair Park destination into a children’s aquarium and hand operations over to Dallas Zoo Management Inc.
Part of the deal was the zoo would run the aquarium if the city underwrote the losses. “The aquarium has operated at a loss every year since we took over in 2009,” Hudson said.
Dealing with the usual financial woes as well as the budget realities facing the zoo and the city, Hudson said they had no other choice than to close the aquarium. He said they had considered opening the aquarium back up or trying to serve the community virtually, “but reaching enough people to have an impact on the bottom line was not realistic.”
The Dallas Park and Recreation Department did not respond for comment.
Monica Valdez, a Dallas resident who lives near Fair Park, said she hasn’t been to the aquarium since the renovations, but was planning on taking her 1-year-old son there when she found out it was closing. "It just seems crazy to me," Valdez said. She wishes the city had better informed the community about the aquarium's financial struggles.
Maybe if people were more informed they could have spoken to the City Council during the budget talks to get the funds the aquarium needed, she said. Now, Valdez said it seems the only hope the aquarium has is for a rich benefactor to come along and save the day.
Both a petition on change.org and a GoFundMe campaign have been set up to try to help save the historic aquarium. The campaign has only raised about $680 since it was started in August. The petition is just a couple hundred people away from its goal of 1,500 signatures.
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Adam Bazaldua, the City Council member who represents Fair Park, told NBC that he and his family are saddened that the aquarium is set to close. He said he thinks the best path forward is to find a private entity to take over operations of the aquarium.
But Brian Luallen, executive director of Fair Park First, a nonprofit organization created to oversee the management of the area, said any private entity that could help the aquarium is likely not in the position to do so because of the pandemic.
The team at the aquarium is in wind-down mode, focused on completing plans to relocate the animals, Hudson said. Conversations are taking place about what might take the aquarium’s place, but no decisions have been made.
“At the end of the day, this asset is still owned by the city of Dallas and it is really up to them as to what they want to do with this historic piece of Dallas history,” Hudson said.