Aquarium gets boost from Town

Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre to change business model to improve their bottom line

Sidney’s Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre has reached what it estimates will be its average annual visitor rate and that alone is not enough to balance the budget.

The aquarium is in the process of changing its business model and is advertising for a fundraiser to help increase their bottom line. SODC Executive Director Alison Barratt says the Town of Sidney’s annual grant of $42,600 has expired following a five-year term and there’s no guarantee the municipality will continue supporting the aquarium in 2015.

“That was the original commitment by the Town when the Centre opened five years ago,” Barratt said. “The Town, in 2015, is expecting to contribute zero dollars.”

Barratt said she hopes the municipality will continue to support the aquarium, but that will be up to a new council after the November election.

To give the SODC some breathing room, the Town has agreed  to provide contingency funding of $50,000. A letter of understanding exists between the two parties, said Barratt, outlining its purpose. That money, she said, may never be used at all.

“We’re not in need of that money right now.,” Barratt said.

“We have reserve funds and it is the summer. We’re having a very busy summer — better than last year. We think we have enough (money) to cover everything.”

Barratt said the contingency is there, showing the support of the current council and as a fallback in case it’s needed. Barratt added the Centre will have to negotiate with the new council and make a request for funding during the 2015 municipal budget process.

Mayor Larry Cross said council wanted to show its support of the aquarium.

“It’s important to our business community,” he said, noting the attraction draws a lot of people into town.

But with economic pressures on the facility, exacerbated by a lack of school program bookings due to the recent labour dispute, Cross said council is supporting a change in the Centre’s business model.

“They may not need (the money,” Cross noted.

He added it will be up to a new council and the Town’s annual budget process to determine of the Centre will continue to receive a contribution from the municipality byond this year.

At an average of 100,000 visitors each year, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre has reached a plateau, Barratt said, based on the location and fixed size of the attraction. The aquarium makes money through ticket sales, gift shop sales, seasons pass holders, summer camps as well as through grants and donations. A non-profit operation, SODC can reach out to other funding sources — such as corporate sponsors and donors — and increasing that revenue stream is the reasoning behind plans to hire a fundraiser. Barratt said the Centre has $65,000 allocated for the position and in the short-term, a successful candidate would be expected to raise at least enough money to pay their salary. Beyond that, she said the expectation is to fundraise up to two times that amount for the Centre.

In its five years of operation, Barratt said the aquarium has never had a balanced budget. The society that runs it has, however, a reserve fund that it has been able to draw from since day one. That has been used to make up the difference each year but Barratt said it’s not sustainable.

“We could continue for some time this way, but not for the long term.”

Five years of continually-running pumps, salt water impacts, staff costs, visitor experience upgrades and ongoing maintenance have their costs as well.

“There has to be a change,” she said. “There could be a day that there won’t be the money. Today is the day we draw the line in the sand.”

Barratt said the Centre has also been trimming costs where it can. Marketing Director Christina Smethurst, Barratt said, is leaving the SODC this week to take a job with the Dogwood Initiative. Her job is being rolled into the duties of the executive director for now, saving money and enabling the Centre to seek out a professional fundraiser.

Barratt said the business model change will see the Centre try to increase its grant and donation revenue to 20 per cent of its overall budget. The goal, she said, is to continue to deliver top quality visitor experiences that the community can be proud of.