New multimillion-dollar aquarium in Morro Bay gets initial OK

A new aquarium is planned to replace Morro Bay’s closed facility at 595 Embarcadero.
A new aquarium is planned to replace Morro Bay’s closed facility at 595 Embarcadero. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

If all goes as planned, a multimillion-dollar waterfront aquarium in Morro Bay will open to visitors in about four years.

The aquarium will showcase fish, invertebrates such as crab and sea stars, and touch tanks that are especially alluring to kids.

It would replace the deteriorating facility run by the Tyler family since the 1960s and would be run by the Central Coast Aquarium, which operates a small aquarium in Avila Beach. The property is owned by the city of Morro Bay; the Tylers’ lease expires in September 2018.

The Morro Bay City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a “consent of landowner” agreement to partner with the Avila Beach-based nonprofit.

The proposed aquarium, at 595 Embarcadero, would include sealife tanks, a second-story multipurpose space for classes and events, new docks for research and ocean ecological tours, a visitors’ center and public restrooms.

Aquarium organizers still need to raise an estimated $7 million to $10 million and go through a city planning process. Organizers hope to break ground in 2019.

The city and aquarium envision a $1 annual lease as part of a 40- or 50-year lease agreement. The city would not collect any proceeds from the aquarium because of the substantial financial burden the nonprofit group will shoulder by taking on the project that’s expected to benefit both the public and city. The new center is expected to draw thousands of tourists annually and generate sales for local businesses — and sales tax for the city.

“Our goal is not just to teach children but to engage them,” said Tara Malzone, the aquarium’s executive director. “This will be a positive experience for visitors and strongly encourage ocean stewardship while attracting visitors to Morro Bay.”

Morro Bay City Manager Dave Buckingham has met numerous times with Central Coast Aquarium leaders to discuss the future arrangement, and council members Christine Johnson and John Headding have toured the Avila Beach operation.

Council members said they are confident the organization could operate an aquarium with high standards.

“I’m confident with the return we’ll get on a $1-per-year lease; the benefit will far exceed the lease itself,” Headding said. “This, in some way, will put Morro Bay on the map as a place to go.”

Like the Avila Beach aquarium, which features more than 50 species of local sea life — including octopus, jellyfish, sharks, sea stars and anemones — the Central Coast Aquarium in Morro Bay would not house marine mammals. Malzone said that the focus of the nonprofit group isn’t to offer close-up views of mammals at its facilities, but rather to encourage viewing them in the ocean.

The nonprofit group, however, would continue its partnership with Cal Poly’s marine science programs at the Morro Bay site on marine research. It already collaborates with the university at the Avila Beach aquarium. Student volunteers participate in the Avila Beach program.

“For many years, we’ve done research in Morro Bay, and we’ve always wanted to have a facility in Morro Bay,” said Dean Wendt, director of the Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences.

The aquarium and Morro Bay envision offering free field trip visits to schools that serve Morro Bay.

Under terms of its agreement with the city, Central Coast Aquarium will need to develop a conceptual plan and financing plan by Dec. 31. The city can pull out if those conditions aren’t met to its satisfaction.

The City Council has long wanted to see the site, operated by Dean and Bertha Tyler for five decades, remain an aquarium and marine education center.

The Tyler family initially bid to renew its lease, but that didn’t meet city approval because the family proposed minimal change to the aging facility.

Still, city and aquarium officials hope to honor the Tylers’ legacy with photos, artifacts or other displays.

Some members of the public expressed concern that parking could be an issue along the busy Embarcadero.

But city officials noted that 150 parking spaces are available to the city at its Triangle lot near the Dynegy site, as well as another 40 spaces at Pacific and Main streets.

The possibility of installing a parking garage in the downtown area also has been discussed, though not associated with this project.

The parking arrangements will need to be more thoroughly examined in the future, city officials said.

With no other organizations applying for the lease, city manager Buckingham suggested that the city avoid charging Central Coast Aquarium any parking tax because the organization could walk away from the agreement if it believes the cost is too much.

“This is the last chance for a proposed aquarium in Morro Bay,” Buckingham said. “The question is, ‘Do we dance with the partner we have?’ ”

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