Dallas officials said they were "surprised" and angered last month because the decades-old aquarium in Fair Park was jilted by the national zoo and aquarium association. But, the truth is, the aquarium has been deteriorating and cash-strangled for more than a decade. The only surprise seems to be that it didn't get kicked out of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association earlier, when, officials say, the city's aquarium was in even worse shape.

Officials initially scoffed at the association's aquarium report and trivialized it, saying it focused on small details like the need for some circuit-breaker-type outlets in the aquarium's behind-the-scenes wet areas. What they didn't say is that in areas removed from public view, the association saw a facility that, in their opinion, was in disrepair and a management that was floundering, without a clear picture of its future in terms of financial or philosophical goals.

Under the heading "Primary Concerns," the association's report, which the city only reluctantly produced last week, said they have a "concern for long-term future of the aquarium," a need for a "clear set of goals for the aquarium" and the need for "a financial contingency plan." They also cited problems with city maintenance, water discharge, animal quarantine areas, cracked concrete, peeling paint, rusty pipes, cobwebs and clutter.

The troublesome thing about losing accreditation from the association is that it is like a national club for zoos and aquariums. Membership is necessary for zoos and aquariums to obtain certain kinds of grants, to be allowed to import some animals and to borrow animals for exhibits from other association members. Zoo and aquarium professionals consider accreditation important and similar to the accreditation of a university, says Jane Ballentine, director of public affairs for the Maryland-based association.

"There are some funding and granting organizations that will ask in your application if you are accredited, and if you are not, you get kind of put at the bottom of the pile," she says. "But they are looking for that mark of professionalism from that sort of third party saying that this place is professional and has high quality standards."

Besides the ramifications of losing accreditation, the association's action suggests a deeper problem at the aquarium, one that is neither new nor likely to disappear without a huge influx of money.

Rich Buickerood, zoo and aquarium director, told members of the city's park board last week that it would take only $87,000 to make the changes the association wants. But, he says, the aging aquarium really needs a much bigger fix. He is proposing that $6 million be spent on initial improvements and another $26 million after that to make it the kind of highly regarded city attraction that the public would embrace.

The money, which could be a combination of taxpayer dollars and private funds, would pay for improvements including an ambitious Trinity River display and a huge water tank with a public viewing area underneath. Improvements would fit and expand old and new portions of the existing building and make use of removable water tanks.

The association's report on the aquarium came just before the city also learned the association didn't like what it saw at the zoo, either. The association "tabled" the zoo's accreditation, meaning it's on a sort of probation and being allowed time to make changes. The zoo report says Dallas officials told association inspectors that closing the aquarium was considered as a way to get more money to the zoo, which is described as similarly cash poor.

Buickerood concedes that the city discussed closing the aquarium but only as a last resort in the event of severe budget cuts that would affect the $11.8 million annual budget for the zoo and aquarium.

"The way we manage the aquarium is as a department of the zoo," he says. "I say, look, I've got a bird department, a mammal department...and I got a fish department. Well, the fish department is costing me a hell of a lot of money to run. What would happen if I closed the doors on the aquarium? Well, we didn't really want to close it, and we've been very careful about not saying that, so what happens if we mothball the building? Let's just mothball it for a couple of years, get the $6 million and reopen?"

But, Buickerood says even if the city council doesn't agree to pursue bond money or private financing for an improved aquarium, he believes the facility will stay open, albeit limping along as it has been since the city assumed management. It's important to note, Buickerood says, that while it may appear the aquarium has been in a constant state of decline, the city actually has improved the facility dramatically since taking control back from the Museum of Natural History in the late 1980s.

"It's been steady improvements. When I came here in '91 or '92, this place was a wreck. The glass was all scratched, and the animals were all dying; the roof was falling in," he says. "It's just that the list is endless. We spent $1.9 million in '93. We put in new air conditioning; we've taken out asbestos, done the roof. It's just endless."

Generally, the public perception of the about 70-exhibit city aquarium seems to be that it is still a small, dark and musty building that cannot even really be compared to the private and more popular multistory Dallas World Aquarium & Zoological Garden. But, officials say, that isn't a fair assessment. They've made big improvements to exhibits, signs and lighting, and they've renovated the salt-water tank area, they say.

Brian Potvin, the aquarium curator who has an obvious affection for his workplace, says the number of visitors is way up, and he thinks it's because they create and rotate new exhibits more frequently. During this year's state fair, he says, attendance was up by 33 percent compared with last year. He concedes that some members of the public may have a poor perception of the aquarium but says typically those who don't have a good feeling about the aquarium haven't seen it in many years.

Potvin walks up a set of stairs leading to the back of the aquarium and opens a door. Back here, where the public doesn't typically go, is where the association found most of the trouble. What they saw, Potvin says, was a halfway finished renovation project that is now done and a number of small problem areas, like the electrical outlets that shouldn't be in wet areas. It wasn't anything major, rather the accumulation of small things endemic to an older structure that led to the association's decision, he says.

"It was originally built in 1936. It was planned to be just a temporary building; some have said it was supposed to be used for a year," he says.

The aquarium's annual budget is $373,000, about half of that generated from entry fees ($3 for adults and $1.50 for children). The aquarium's annual budget puts it 30th--or last--among aquariums in the association, according to the city. In contrast, Sea World in San Diego, which has underwater viewing tanks like the one Buickerood talked about, has a budget of $105 million. The Dallas World Aquarium & Zoological Garden has a budget of about $1.5 million.

Ballentine says she does not have access to zoo or aquarium reports but that the association doesn't pull accreditation unless conditions are seriously deteriorated or dangerous. It is rare, she says, for an aquarium or zoo to lose its approval from the association and that the action always happens with warning.

"It is not taken lightly. It's the reason why we have our accreditation system...the Dallas Zoo has been tabled for accreditation, which means yes, it's still a member, but it's sending up some warning signals to those in charge," Ballentine says. "They are not serious enough to cause a big detriment right now. It doesn't look like humans could be in serious danger, but there's things that need to be put into place or fixed up."

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius