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County lawmakers approve $85 million aquarium

This is a rendering of the aquarium.
QPK design
This is a rendering of the aquarium.

UPDATE: 2:56 p.m., Tuesday:

Original story:

Onondaga County lawmakers could decide the fate of the controversial proposed $85.5 million dollar aquarium at their session Tuesday. The idea was first floated by County Executive Ryan McMahon at his state of the county address last October, and hasn't been on the legislature's agenda since December.

McMahon and supporters have said an aquarium on Syracuse's Inner Harbor would provide the struggling area with the boost it needs. But skeptics question what they call overly optimistic attendance projections and worry that ongoing costs will be borne by taxpayers. Some say a private entity, not the county, should take the risk.

At last week's ways and means committee meeting, 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 Democratic floor leader 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.

Officials with agencies who count onfoot traffic and tourism have come out in support of the aquarium, from Visit Syracuse to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

But some lawmakers and community leaders have said the $85 million can bebetter used elsewhere, especially in a community that's struggling with poverty, lead paint poisoning, transportation challenges, opioid abuse, mental health issues, and much more.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at