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Syracuse aquarium still facing controversy as lawmakers expected to put it to a vote

A banner that reads "Inner Harbor" hangs off a lamp post at the waterfront in Syracuse.
A banner that reads "Inner Harbor" hangs off a lamp post at the waterfront in Syracuse.

A large public audience gathered Tuesday for the Onondaga County Ways and Means Committee meeting to hear more details on the proposed $85 million aquarium project.

The proposed plan by County Executive Ryan McMahon has sparked ongoing debate because it would rely on COVID relief funds, which some lawmakers say would be better used elsewhere. But those in favor say the aquarium say it will draw tourism dollars to the area.

Deputy County Executive Mary Beth Primo said the success of a similar project in Chattanooga, Tennessee shows how one could succeed here.

“Chattanooga and the hour’s drive around there has almost the exact same population numbers as we do—1,500,000 and change – and that’s where we differ, on that little bit of change. So our residential market is exactly the same, and you know what’s better for us? Our residential market has 15% more, higher median household income,” Primo said at the county committee meeting.

But Legislator Chris Ryan questioned the comparison.

“They have a six story IMAX theater there, I don’t think that they have the boat traffic that we do, and quite frankly the Chattanooga, Tennessee was privately funded. Why can’t we get private companies or private investments? Why can’t we get someone other than taxpayers to foot the bill?” Ryan said.

Legislator Linda Ervin said the lack of public input gave her pause. She said the public who would fund the project hasn’t been consulted enough and may not be in favor. 

“I get emails all day every day, I get calls all day every day, saying ‘no, no, no, no.’ And I have nothing to fight that with because all I have is ‘it’s a great project because’ — no that’s not the answer. The answer is go to the public and ask them what they want. If they want this project then we’ll be better able to vote for it,” Ervin said.

Republican Committee Chair Brian May said he’s ready to put it to a vote, but he also had some reservations.

“In my role in the Legislature I’m going to listen very keenly to the concerns people have about public safety, about the location, about the viability of the area, about private investment coming to that area after the fact, instead of before—that kind of thing. To me those are all the kinds of things that have to be worked out,” May said.

The full county legislature will likely vote on the aquarium proposal next Tuesday. 

This story has been updated to include more details following the committee meeting.