Seattle Aquarium needs $20 million to finish expansion on time, asking city for help

A $160 million expansion of the Seattle Aquarium is in jeopardy of opening on time if it doesn’t get a quick infusion of money.

Construction of the new Ocean Pavilion is underway, but it could be delayed if the Seattle City Council doesn’t approve a loan request of $20 million.

"We asked for $20 million so we can keep on schedule," said Bob Donegan, the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Seattle Aquarium.

The centerpiece of the Pavilion is a 325,000-gallon tank for tropical fish, sharks, rays, and 30 types of coral.  It also plays a key role in the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront now that the Viaduct has been torn down and replaced with a tunnel.

Planning for the expansion started 13 years ago, with a projected cost of $120 million.

Donegan said COVID, supply chain problems and unplanned additions have increased the expansion cost to $160 million.

So far, the non-profit that operates the aquarium has raised $105 million from donors but needs the additional $20 million to keep construction on schedule.

"The fundraising is slightly behind budget, but not significantly slow," Donegan said.  "We didn't want to miss the opportunity to match what’s going on in the city with the construction of the roadway and the park."

That’s a key point for the city leaders-- it's funding the construction of a rebuilt Alaskan Way and a pedestrian promenade that will link Pike Place Market over the aquarium to the waterfront.

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Seattle Aquarium

If there’s a slowdown in one project, it will affect the others and any delay could be costly to all.

"As you know with this inflationary environment, every time we delay it, ends up costing more," said Donegan.  "So we don't want to do that but if we have to we have the ability to do that".

Seattle City Council members heard a pitch for the loan during a meeting of its Finance Committee on Wednesday.

"Any delay is not acceptable to me," said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, whose district includes the aquarium.

Some members voiced their displeasure of first seeing the loan proposal 72 hours prior to the meeting and questioned the immediate need for the money.

"How we are able to afford to give out $20 million from the Real Estate Excise Tax Fund when we've got so many infrastructure needs in the city right now," said Councilmember Alex Pedersen.

Representatives of the Aquarium assured the councilmember that fundraising efforts will cover the repayment of the loan.

"It’s just a timing issue," said Donegan.

"It is a one-time, last effort to support this very important project," said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda

Donegan said the additional cost of the Pavilion would not reflect in an unplanned ticket price increase.

"There’s no specific cost increases tied to the cost of building the newer facility or operating it," he said.

The Finance Committee voted 4-1, with Councilmember Pedersen the lone dissenter, to move the loan proposal forward to a vote of the full council. That vote is expected to take place on Aug. 16.