Morro Bay waterfront needs upgrades

Owners of the Morro Bay Aquarium say they don't plan to renew their lease because of the cost of renovations required by the city.
Owners of the Morro Bay Aquarium say they don't plan to renew their lease because of the cost of renovations required by the city.

The recent announcement that the Central Coast Aquarium of Avila Beach, Cal Poly and the National Estuary Program plan to team up on a proposal to renovate the Morro Bay Aquarium is excellent news.

As we’ve said before, the aging and dilapidated Morro Bay Aquarium is in need of a sea change, and we were encouraged when the Morro Bay City Council — by a narrow, 3-2 vote — agreed to request proposals from potential new operators of the facility, rather than renew the current owner’s lease.

Working in partnership, the Central Coast Aquarium, Cal Poly and the Morro Bay National Estuary Program — a nonprofit that works to protect and restore the Morro Bay Estuary — will no doubt design a facility that will function both as a tourist attraction and a topnotch educational resource.

While it’s unrealistic to expect something on the large scale of a Monterey aquarium, we see no reason why Morro Bay cannot support a first-class facility that will showcase local marine life; accommodate scientific research; and provide space for the rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals, which was one of the original missions of the current aquarium.

It won’t happen overnight; remodeling the aquarium will be an ambitious, mult-imillion dollar project. However, we believe it’s critical to make that investment now, rather than attempt to limp along with minor upgrades.

Here’s why: A revamped aquarium will be the linchpin of a revitalized waterfront and lead to a resurgence in tourism, boosting sales and bed tax for the city. That’s going to be essential to the long-term economic health of Morro Bay, which has been struggling economically for years.

What’s more, the aquarium will be just one facet of revitalization. Leases on 11 key waterfront parcels will expire by 2020 and, as conditions of renewal, the city is requiring major upgrades for several properties. (Much of the Morro Bay waterfront is public property held in trust by the city, which has authority to lease the property to private businesses.)

As Tribune reporter Nick Wilson reported this past spring, work on waterfront properties will include remodeling and enlarging handicap-accessible restrooms; installing new boat slips; widening sidewalks in some spots; expanding outdoor seating; and, in one case, reducing a two-story pub to a single story and adding a roof deck for patrons.

Major changes also will be required at the aquarium. Among others, the building will have to be set back to accommodate an 8-foot sidewalk — the front walkway is now just 6 feet wide — and space will have to be created for a waterfront walkway.

Proposals for the upgrade of the Morro Bay Aquarium are due Oct. 16; we look forward to them.

Morro Bay has suffered a string of reversals, including declines in the fishing industry, closure of the power plant and the Great Recession.

It’s time for the city to chart a new course. Major renovation of waterfront properties — especially the landmark aquarium — is an excellent way to start.