With increased attention on the future of the Morro Bay Aquarium, a majority of the Morro Bay City Council voted to begin accepting new proposals for facility redesigns and upgrades.
In a 3-2 decision on June 25, Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons joined council members Christine Johnson and Noah Smukler in asking city officials to open a Request For Proposals (RFP) process for the site currently occupied by the aquarium.
City staffers put forward two options: Either put out an RFP, which would allow other organizations to pitch projects for the space; or accept owners Dean and Bertha Tyler’s proposal for a new 10-year lease. In mid-2012, the city began its first RFP process for the site, but put it on hold due to staff constraints and increasing public scrutiny, according to Harbor Director Eric Endersby, who noted that the city wanted a more transparent process.
The aquarium’s 50-year lease will expire in 2018. The city first approached the Tylers in 2011 to begin negotiations and received no response. The Tylers then offered “modest” proposals, with the latest plans calling for “cosmetic” upgrades to the building and dock improvements. They further offered to boost ticket prices (currently $2 per person) to generate a capital improvement of $500,000 to $750,000 over 10 years.
“I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things here,” said co-owner Dean Tyler. “We’ve had, we’ll say, unfavorable publicity … that have come from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.”
With the council’s decision, the Tylers can still submit an RFP, but they could be competing with other interested organizations, such as the Central Coast Aquarium, which has proposed working with the city and the Tylers to redevelop the aquarium.
The majority of council members stressed that they admired the Tylers’ stewardship for creating an aquarium at a time when nothing of the sort existed, but added that it needs significant upgrades.
The Humane Society International claims the aquarium generates more complaints than any other aquarium in the United States. And in the weeks leading up to the meeting, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, SLO County Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson, and thousands of concerned individuals flooded city officials with e-mails protesting conditions at the facility. Jenni James, a litigation fellow with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, told New Times that she’s started to survey people who falsely believe the majority of seals and sea lions at the aquarium are rehabilitated animals—all but three were purchased from Sea World of Florida, according to a federal marine Mammal Inventory Report—and the group plans to continue investigating.
“Consumers need to know that this aquarium is not what it claims to be,” James said in a phone interview.
More than 40 people spoke at the meeting. Roughly 26 encouraged the city to open up the RFP process.
“Please, I hope you will do the right thing for the animals and for the city,” said Kimberly Dreher, who launched an online petition through Change.org. “The world is now paying attention.”
Others, like resident Steve Rebuck, lauded the Tylers and the aquarium: “I consider, personally, the two of them to be local heroes.”
Council members George Leage and Nancy Johnson decried the majority opinion and advocated giving the Tylers another six months to update their proposal.
“It takes them out of the driver’s seat,” Leage said.
Nancy Johnson went on to accuse other council members of having “an agenda” by meeting with the Central Coast Aquarium to discuss potential uses of the aquarium space.
The council majority noted that they would like new proposals to maintain the site as some form of an aquarium or marine education facility, but stressed that it be properly accredited by an outside organization.