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Norwalk rethinking Maritime Aquarium’s theater project

The planned location of the new Maritime Aquarium 4-D Theater. (File photo)

Updated, 7:44 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – The Maritime Aquarium is struggling to meet its budget to replace the IMAX Theater, according to Norwalk Department of Public Works Principal Engineer Lisa Burns.

The Aquarium solicited bids for the construction of a new 4-D Theater, and other work at the Aquarium, and received more than 20 “trade packages,” but the project will need to be rebid, Burns told the Common Council Public Works Committee last week.

Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said this meant the bids came in too high. Burns did not disagree.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation needs to use the space occupied by the IMAX Theater during reconstruction of the Walk Bridge. The Aquarium had been told that they would need to be out of the IMAX theater by June, but the Walk Bridge project is behind schedule so there’s time, Burns said.

The Aquarium has plans for a state-of-the-art 4-D theater and the state has agreed to cover all costs, an estimated $34.5 million, Maritime Board of Trustees Co-Chairman Michael Widland said in May.

The City has taken a more active role, Burns said last week, explaining that the City owns the property and the Aquarium is a tenant. The City wasn’t involved when the Aquarium developed its plans but has been given more responsibility, according to Burns.

There are “some high level discussions about how to move project forward,” she said.

It’s a complicated project; in connected work, the meerkats have to be moved and a new seal tank is planned. More than a year ago, the Aquarium planned to create a new entrance on North Water Street, across from Marshall Street, and “temporary tunnels to protect the public” during construction were planned.

“We need to do another constructability review to bring the (construction) schedule down,” Burns said, commenting that the entrance creates American Disabilities Act issues. “We’re looking at it again. We think we can meet the schedule by building the entrance first, and still getting the IMAX up. There’s ways.”

The Aquarium in November announced that Maureen Hanley, “a businesswoman with extensive professional and charitable involvement in Fairfield County,” had been named its new president and CEO. Hanley is getting up to speed, Burns said.

According to Burns, the plan remains to start construction this spring, as the state will pay for consultants to assist the process.

7 comments

Kathleen December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am

What is the past use of the IMAX theater and revenue figures? What revenue is expected for the 4-D theater? As stated, the state has agreed to fund building costs. What are the maintenance costs?

Piberman December 10, 2018 at 10:44 am

Puzzling but perhaps not expected that City Hall hasn’t hired consultants to assist with every stage of this Walk Bridge Project. Especially detailing the costs to City residents, businesses and the City itself wit hthe largest public works project in the City’s modern history. Likely to cost tens of millions if not more. Lets remember the Aquarium is the City’s “crown jewel” and was made possible through the generosity of benefactors many of whom lived outside the City.

Everyone expects a high degree of professionalism from City Hall in handling the Aquarium’s destruction and renewal. Especially when the overwhelming majority of City residents object to the Boondoggle Walk Bridge project that brings no benefit to the City. Just humongous costs.

So who makes up the costs of reduced access to the Aquarium ? The Tooth Fairy ? At days end how the Boondoggle Walk Bridge Project will provide some insights on how City Hall is managed and whether its in the best interests of City residents to elect City officials without major business expeience to lead the City. Lets hope for the best.

JOHN C ROMANO December 10, 2018 at 1:14 pm

As Kathleen has pointed out. (see her remarks) a cost/risk/reward should be undertaken. If there are funds to be had, could they go into the city account to bolster school programs. Invest in infrastructure, school upgrades etc.

SONO Resident December 10, 2018 at 4:28 pm

4D theatres are a complete gimmick; they spray some mist in your face and the chair bounces up and down. Seeing a film on an IMAX screen is an unparalleled experience. This proposal would be a downgrade for Norwalk and the area, it would be great if they just built a new IMAX.

Debora Goldstein December 10, 2018 at 6:34 pm

I have a different question.

Since we, as taxpayers (state and city) are effectively paying for the same structure three times, can we get an accounting of how many JOBS the IMAX supports? How much do they pay? How many employees are from Norwalk?

And before someone jumps up on their soapbox to talk about the multiplier effect for the other businesses in the area, let’s be clear the question is about the IMAX itself.

With fewer seats and more expensive tickets, there is unlikely to be a boost to the impact for local businesses in the area, so the only real upside to this project is whether a few dollars flow to the locals.

Claire Schoen December 10, 2018 at 6:48 pm

If the state agreed to cover all costs, and if its estimate of $34.5 million has turned out to be low, isn’t it on them to revise it and find budget to cover this? One would assume that the state has some kind of rationale for how it arrived at that number…
Doug Hempstead may well be correct that the bids are too high — but it seems to me this should be rectified by the state not the city.
Perhaps the city/aquarium could rent the property back to the state while it works on the bridge, to make up the difference….

Debora Goldstein December 13, 2018 at 9:55 am

State money is taxpayer money too. Moving money from one pocket to the other is part of the problem. The City is collecting “rent” on city-owned properties all over the place for Walk Bridge staging.

This may well be why we do not have adequate push-back on decision like:

– Replacing the bridge with a lift bridge
– Re-aligning Ft Point street
– Lowering roadways to facilitate truck traffic where it is not appropriate
– Allowing the relocation of transmission lines without a full environmental review
– Allowing that same transmission line to tunnel under a public facility and in sensitive harbor areas adjacent to contaminated fill
– Endorsing the idea of using taxpayer money to pay for the same structure three times
– Allowing construction noise at night for months on end without appropriate reporting mechanisms to enable development of effective mitigation

Here’s a question. How much revenue of the City’s upcoming operating budget will be coming directly from the “magic” state funds for the Walk Bridge?

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