On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to work directly with the Avila Beach nonprofit to take over the lease for the bayfront aquarium, which has been operated by Dean and Bertha Tyler since 1968. The lease expires in 2018, and the city is requiring substantial improvements to the property.
The city’s staff will assist the nonprofit on its proposal for operating and developing the site, with the goal of having the proposal submitted to the council by the end of the year.
City officials had previously contacted the Central Coast Aquarium about taking over and remodeling the aging bayside aquarium at 595 Embarcadero. But the nonprofit said it needed more time to pull together its research and planning on expanding its operation to Morro Bay.
“There’s so much to prepare, and we’re such a small nonprofit,” said Tara Malzone, Central Coast Aquarium’s executive director. “We now know we have until the end of the year to come up with something. We want to come up with something really wonderful to present.”
The long-term goal for the city is to create a multifaceted visitor, education and research center at the site. A rough cost estimate is about $5 million, though that figure could be scaled down depending on funding and construction limitations.
In a staff report, City Manager Dave Buckingham wrote that conceptually the future aquarium would include the following to reflect the vision of past council guidance:
- A first-floor aquarium to serve visitors;
In anticipation of the expiration of the lease in 2018, the city put out a request for proposals last year to line up an applicant who would significantly remodel the facility and meet current code requirements.
The request solicited a renovated marine aquarium or a marine education facility, or both. But no proposals were submitted by an October deadline that had already been extended once from April 2014.
The Tylers, who are in their 90s, requested a 10-year extension of their lease through 2028, but without making any substantial improvements to the site, Buckingham said.
The council’s decision this week authorizes city staff to work directly with Central Coast Aquarium to hammer out a suitable plan that could include city subsidies in the form of reduced costs for permits and reduced lease fees.
“Fifty years ago, the Tylers established the aquarium,” Mayor Jamie Irons said. “Their legacy will fold into the next 50 years. This is all very positive for the city of Morro Bay and for visitors.”
Malzone said the planning will include a feasibility study, business plan and concept for exhibits. Significant support of donors, possibly a major donor, will be critical, she said.
Malzone said that its Avila Beach location at 50 San Juan St. near the popular boardwalk is thriving, attracting 20,000 people last year.
Hundreds of schoolchildren come to learn about marine life and take ocean tours aboard boats that cruise the bay.
“Some of the children who come here from Santa Maria have never seen the ocean before,” Malzone said. “The educational piece makes us feel really good about our jobs.”
Councilmember Christine Johnson has helped facilitate the arrangement with Central Coast Aquarium.
“It’s exciting to have an organization on board with a good foothold and track record,” Johnson said. “Their vision for the future matches the hopes the council had when the project was initially sent out for RFP (request for proposals). The city is reaching out to make a smooth transition that’s committed to ensuring a legacy for the Tylers.”