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Onondaga County Aquarium Inches Closer To A Vote As Lawmakers, Others See Bias In Feasibility Study

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

Onondaga County’s proposed 85 million dollar aquarium project is one step closer to a vote in the legislature after getting cleared to go before the ways and means committee.  But some lawmakers and others are questioning the impartiality of afeasibility study that county leaders are using to make the case for the project.   

The county paid $120,000 for the study, which was conducted by ConsultEcon out of Massachusetts. Economic Development director Mary Beth Primo quoted some of the projected benefits.

"The project will generate on an annual basis new economic activity of roughly $52 million. During construction, the economic activity will be $63 million..."

Legislator Mary Kuhn questions the study’s objectivity.

"I know it was done by a qualified firm. It reads to me like a marketing study. I would like an independent analysis, someone from our community, to take a look at the numbers."

Syracuse-based economist David Andrews closely analyzed the study.

"It said feasibility study, so I thought it would be about feasibility. It's a marketing campaign. It has to be seen and judged as a marketing campaign, not as an attempt to do an objective study. The whole study, if you want to call it a study, is based on the assumption that it will be a brilliant success, like aquariums in places like New Orleans or Seattle."

He says most of the cities cited in the study are much bigger, well-established seaside locations where aquariums were built as an additional attraction. Andrews says there are no examples of smaller cities on the edge of a recovering lake.

"What [the study] really says is what you need to have is this pre-existing seaside [location] to be successful. Syracuse just doesn't have that. What the study needed is comparable cities, benchmark cities that are similar to Syracuse that are not on the seaside. I think that would give us a better idea of the prospects of an aquarium in Onondaga County."

Andrews says he’s not predicting an aquarium will be a failure, but there’s nothing in the study that gives him confidence that it will be the success they’re assuming it will be. It projects an average of 490,000 visitors per year, with many of them making a two to five hour drive. Legislator Mary Kuhn knows restaurants and hotels support the economic potential of the project.

"I've gotten a lot of letters, and I represent them, too, so I understand the economic issues. I think those economic issues need to be explored before we presume that it's going to do all the good that it says."

The legislature's Ways and Means Committee will consider the aquarium Friday.  If there are enough votes, it could advance to the legislature’s session agenda on Tuesday. 

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