Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

 

The City has been on a deliberate path of evaluating how best to position the Virginia Aquarium to meet its mission while remaining realistic about the City’s financial obligations, myriad of capital infrastructure needs and taxpayer affordability.

Sustainable Future

Virginia Aquarium

Several of the Virginia Aquarium’s key assets are at the end of useful life, and the Aquarium is in need of capital investments for renovations and expansion.

City of Virginia Beach

There’s about $991 million in unmet budget needs (without including schools) from a capital infrastructure standpoint: flood protection, sea level rise, roads, law enforcement training, courthouses, roads, bridges, etc. Schools are 50% of the City budget: we fund them, and they are part of the same debt capacity.

Overview: The Virginia Aquarium

The Virginia Aquarium is a public-private partnership between the City of Virginia Beach and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The City owns and maintains the Aquarium’s buildings and provides administrative support, while the Foundation procures the Aquarium’s collection of animals and exhibits. The Foundation is also responsible for fundraising efforts and various scientific research, education, and conservation programs. The aquarium features a variety of attractions for visitors, including over 800,000 gallons of marine life to explore, coastal boat trips, a zip line and aerial adventure park, as well as a rotating collection of other exhibits.

A detailed summary of the Aquarium's offerings, budget, performance measures and organization chart can be found on pages 67-70 of the FY25 Proposed Budget.

The Situation

In January 2023, Aquarium leadership presented a master plan concept for expansion and renovation of the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. In April 2023, the Aquarium budget was presented to City Council. In light of the presentation, City Council began discussions on how to ensure a sustainable future for the Aquarium and asked staff to compile information on alternative ownership models and a reduced scope for capital projects. 

In late summer, the findings were presented to council and council requested further exploration of alternative ownership models, gain resident public input on the topic and begin meetings with the Aquarium Foundation. Over the course of late fall to early spring, three meetings took place with foundation leadership and Aquarium staff attending town hall meetings.

Three private companies expressed interest in the Aquarium: two in response to a Request for Information (RFI) issued in September 2023, and one response outside of the RFI process. The names of the three companies were publicly shared in April 2024: Zooceanarium Group, Ripley Entertainment and Herschend.

Potential Path Forward

Several options have been discussed by Council to address how to best support the Aquarium financially moving forward: maintain the status quo, increase financial investment at the original or reduced scope, or consider alternative partnerships. There are considerations for all options that must be weighed.

Considerations

Current Efforts

As of April 2024, City Council has instructed City staff to simultaneously explore the alternative partnership model further with interested partners and continue communicating with the Foundation. No commitments have been made at this time. There will be a deliberate and well thought-out process before Council makes a decision.

Timeline

  • Jan. 10, 2023: Aquarium director presented master plan (expansion and renovation) to City Council.

  • April 18, 2023: Aquarium director presented FY24 budget to City Council. Council requested information on alternative ownership models.

  • Spring 2023: City Council requested information on reduced scope for capital project.

  • Aug. 15, 2023: City Manager's Office (CMO) gave presentation on reduced scope and alternative ownership models. City Council requested further exploration of market/alternative ownership models, gauge community sentiment and meet with Aquarium Foundation.

  • September 2023: Leadership met with foundation. Third-party administered statistically significant random-sample survey. RFI issued. 

  • Nov. 14, 2023: CMO closed session debrief.

  • Nov. 17, 2023: Staff met with Aquarium Foundation.

  • December 2023: Virginia Aquarium employee town halls. Media response/release including survey results.

  • February 2024: Onsite visits with RFI responders.

  • March 2024: Onsite visits debriefs with firm and Aquarium Foundation chair.

  • March 19, 2024: City Council closed session briefing.

  • March 26, 2024: Public briefing.

  • April 9, 2024: Aquarium director presented FY25 budget to City Council. Council requested information on financials.

  • April 12, 2024: Virginia Aquarium Alternative Partnership Model - Financials Update Staff Report delivered to City Council.