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Norwalk Council gives Maritime Aquarium nod of approval

Planned additions to the Maritime Aquarium are shown in yellow.

NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk Common Council members on Tuesday moved plans for Maritime Aquarium forward, while clearly stated that they don’t intend the city to fund the work.

The approval of the plans that include a new 4D theater on the other side of the aquarium, to replace the IMAX Theater ahead of its demolition for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Walk Bridge project, was needed because the city owns the land the aquarium sits on. As owner, the city needed to sign off to move Zoning approvals forward, should they be obtained.

It’s not obligating Norwalk to spend money, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said. Any modifications on the agreement would have to come back for approval.

“I want to commend the Maritime Aquarium for doing this,” Livingston said. “We talk so much about the destruction that’s coming to the city because of the Walk Bridge project. Here, the Aquarium is getting ahead of it and I think they are doing the appropriate thing in planning and have come up with a very detailed plan, to address this. We can’t lose sight of the fact that the Maritime Aquarium brings in $25 million a year to the city, 50 million a year to state. I for one don’t want the city to risk losing any of that because they get delayed on this project.”

The plans, which include an enhanced entrance on North Water Street and expanded seal tanks, have already been submitted to Zoning. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 15., Attorney Liz Suchy wrote in a letter to the Council, explaining that the Redevelopment Agency and the Planning Commission have approved the plans.

Aquarium officials are looking to begin their project as soon as possible, to have a new theater built before the state demolishes the old one. The new entrance would be built first, to facilitate patrons moving through the building as construction is underway.

Council member Rich Bonenfant (R-At Large) on Tuesday highlighted the funding issue, pointing out that no one at the Oct. 4 Committee meeting said how the work would be financed.

“I was hoping there would be some kind of signal from the state of Connecticut that they are going to cover the whole thing because we have been on the hook before when the Maritime Center didn’t pay for their other construction loans. We paid for it, the taxpayers,” Bonenfant said.

“We have to understand that the $25 million in revenue that comes to the city has helped keep taxes low. You pay for it one way or the other. The better the Maritime Aquarium does, the better the city does; the better the city does the better the taxpayers are doing. So, I think It’s in everyone’s interest to figure out a way to get through this very tough situation,” Finance Committee Chairman Bruce Kimmel (D-At Large) said.

“If we can help in any way, with the money, not coming out of city coffers but finding ways to finance it, I think the city should do that to preserve this, not only for Norwalk but for the state,” Kimmel said. “And like I said before, it is in the interest of our property taxpayers to have a thriving downtown.”

“We are not obligating ourselves to pay anything right now,” Livingston said. “We are approving plans, any requests of financing or anything else would come back to the Council. At which time, we would look at that in the context of cost as well as what they provide to the city.”

Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked why the plans had already been submitted to Zoning, without Council approval.

Corporation Counsel Mario Coppola said he expected a new lease for the Aquarium to be approved in November and he suggested this approach.

“We could always make the Zoning approval contingent on having the necessary city approvals for the property. What we didn’t want to do is not them not to move forward on the land use approval,” Coppola said.

“The Aquarium has really done a great job about being very proactive,” he said, pointing out that the state keeps changing its deadlines, forcing Aquarium officials to constantly adapt.

The current IMAX theater screen can’t accommodate every movie, costing the Aquarium in lost revenue, Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) said.

“In order to change the screen and update the technology, you’d have to remove the wall anyway. I am thinking this is actually one of the better things to come out of the Walk Bridge project,” Kydes said.

It’s a silver lining, Kimmel said in agreement.

He’s been in a 4D theater, he said.

“It’s actually kind of cool,” Kimmel said. “I think it would be a great addition to the Aquarium especially if you can link it to the Aquarium’s mission regarding the environment, sea life, all of that, and not just racing cars, something like that, something that’s integral to the aquarium’s goals.”

The vote was 12-1-0, with Bonenfant voting no. It was the unknown nature of the financing, he said, adding, “I am OK with the plans and the layout.”

7 comments

will harris October 25, 2017 at 7:46 am

How is this any different than Oak Hills wanting a driving range and help with the “albatross on the hill” a/k/a the restaurant building, which the city owns?

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 25, 2017 at 8:24 am

The buildings belong to the Maritime Aquarium according to their 990s. That’s because the City forgave the debt on the bonds. The land belongs to the City and is leased back to the MA, which pays no rent to the city. A figure of 25 million in annual revenue to the city gets passed around a lot, but I have not seen any evidence to back this up. Since the MA doesn’t share a portion of the admission or tchotchke sales revenue with Norwalk, is the 25 mil figure based on actual MA patrons spending money in Norwalk? I’m glad at least Rich Bonenfant had the guts to vote NO on this.

Coming out against meerkats might make me a special kind of baddie in town. But the life expectancy of a meerkat in captivity is 10-14 years. They’ve been here since 2010. Meerkats are important to the cost equation because the harbor seals, who live much longer and who are central to the MA’s mission of LI Sound awareness, have to be moved to make way for the Walk Bridge project. I think. The harbor seals’ new home will be where the meerkats are now (or so I’ve been told). I’m starting to think that these little carnivores are driving a lot of new exhibit construction needs, and they’ve only got about five years left on their little odometers. Meanwhile, there’s a fine aquarium up the road that I’m sure would be happy to take care of our harbor seals while the work is done.

Since the land belongs to me too, I’d like to get in a word about the proposed new 4D theatre experience. Blech. First off, 4D is a marketing term—unless the MA board has figured out how to time travel. 4D seats are costly. Personally, I don’t want my iMax seat to move. And while a button on the seat would control motions, I could do without fog and sea spray.

So again, why is the CC approving my land be modified in this way, especially in the absence of hard numbers on how much the MA brings into the City? I love the MA truly. In fact, I love it so much, I’d like it to stay just the way it is. The evidence here is about as compelling as what the state DOT has been touting for the Walk Bridge. In other words, not very.

And no, I have not been to every meeting. So what.

Nancy Chapman October 25, 2017 at 10:45 am

Yes, the seals have to be moved. A two story addition is planned, which would allow the bi-level viewing experience common in other aquariums. The seals are not young either, and are referred to as “geriatric seals.”

Jeff October 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm

Donna, I would guess the $25 million figure is derived from a multiplier on what the Maritime Aquarium pays each year for employee salaries, food and other supplies purchased from local vendors, and other maintenance and upkeep items (painters, landscapers, etc.). Probably includes utilities, parking costs and an estimate on what visitors spend elsewhere. Hard to tell for sure though.

The way the $25 million is phrased on the MA’s web site (“The spending by our employees and 450,000 visitors injects more than $25 million annually into Norwalk’s economy.”) leads me to believe that they may include admissions and other gifts shop / food purchases by guests within the MA.

Donna Smirniotopoulos October 25, 2017 at 3:46 pm

@Jeff, thanks for providing that insight. Not to be a nudge, but since the 25 mil figure seems to be the MA’s number, is it reasonable to assume our CC is leaning on that source as well, or is there an internal financial analysis from the city to back this up? I wonder if Mr. Barron could take a stab. I’m happy the MA is receiving priority treatment with respect to the Walk Bridge. Their board is being proactive in order to mitigate the potential negative impacts of the Walk Bridge project on the animals. I’m feeling a little jealous of the harbor seals right now.

Rick October 25, 2017 at 6:39 pm

so what if GGP puts in a mega a 4D theater or the other movie houses do the same as it is they are doing things over in all the places Norwalk has, what if this is a poor move then what?

Perfect planning prevents p!ss poor performances

Norwalk is on stage and 25 million is such an elusive number unless you include parking tickets. Where are the busses to be parked if vets park is not able to take them with the new rink has that been worked out

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

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Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.