RiverQuarium officials fighting for survival

Flint RiverQuarium Curator Richard Brown maintains the water-filtration system located behind the facility’s exhibits.

Flint RiverQuarium Curator Richard Brown maintains the water-filtration system located behind the facility’s exhibits.

ALBANY, Ga. — As Sanders Lewallen reaches the top of the steps that take him from the lobby to the exhibition area of the Flint RiverQuarium, a smile spreads across his face. He looks straight ahead at the glass wall that offers a stunning view of the blue hole that is the centerpiece of the aquarium, pausing for a moment to take in the scene.


Joe Bellacomo

Sanders E. Lewallen

“I’ve been here a year and a few months now, and I never tire of that sight,” the director of the RiverQuarium says.

That sight has been enjoyed by some 66,000 visitors a year, mostly children eager to get an up-close-and-personal look at the acquatic life on display at the attraction, for the past eight years. Lewallen, his drastically cut staff and supporters of the RiverQuarium are doing everything they can to assure those youngsters that the aquarium will still be open when they plan their next trip.

The Albany City Commission voted two weeks ago to supply the RiverQuarium with $150,000 in emergency funding, funding Lewallen said he’d have to have in order to keep the doors of the attraction open over the next three months. There are detractors, though, who’ve blasted the commission for its action, saying officials are only tossing away more tax money to prolong the inevitable.

Ward V Commissioner Bob Langstaff, one of two board members who voted against the emergency funding, is among those who don’t hold out much hope for the aquarium.

“I want badly for the RiverQuarium to succeed, but I don’t want to do it this way, by throwing money at it,” Langstaff said before a vote was taken on the funding measure.

Others in the community have criticized Lewallen for “waiting until the last minute” to seek the funding and then “waiting a year until the money ran out to start trying to raise (private) funds to support the RiverQuarium.” Lewallen scoffs at the notion.

“People are saying ‘Why is he waiting until now to start fundraising?’” the aquarium director said while taking a visitor on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility. “They need to understand, we’re not ‘starting’ the fundraising now. We’re continuing the fundraising.

“We’ve been looking for ways to reduce costs and diversify and add to our revenue stream from the moment I got here.”

Lewallen offers evidence to support his claim, noting that in his 16 months on the job he’s overseen efforts that have:

— Reduced operating expenses by more than $350,000;

— Raised more than a half-million dollars in private funds;

— Increased revenue generated by rentals, special events, gift shop purchases, camps, education fees;

— Planned a massive local and regional membership campaign;

— Drilled an 80-foot well on site that will cut costs of dechlorinating water currently supplied by the Albany Water, Gas & Light Commission;

— Implemented touch screen and wall graphics projects funded by $505,000 in voter-approved special-purpose local-option sales tax;

— Worked with Education Manager Melissa Martin to create a campaign to bring more school-aged children to the RiverQuarium’s state curriculum-focused wet lab/education center.

“The emergency funding that the city so graciously provided us was just that: money to help us meet an immediate emergency,” Lewallen said. “We hope to maintain our bare-bones level of staffing and continue to cut costs while raising an additional $150,000 to close what we figured would be an immediate funding gap of $300,000.

“But we’re not stopping there. We’re looking at ways to increase the efficiency of our equipment while planning a solicitation campaign for grants and donations that will allow us to make up for the $525,000 in funding that the city and county cut a couple of years ago.”

Regular visitors to the RiverQuarium are familiar with the various fishes and other acquatic wildlife that are the focus of the exhibits inside the aquarium. But few are aware of the inner workings of the venue required to keep those creatures alive and comfortable in their surroundings.

General curator Richard Brown is primarily responsible for most of the daily behind-the-scenes work among the intricate series of pipes, filters and pumps that are vital to the operation of the aquarium.

“This down here is like a living, breathing thing,” said Brown, who has been with the RiverQuarium since it opened on Labor Day in 2004 after a 17-year career at Sea World. “Those pumps are like the heart, and the filters here are like the kidneys.

“The pipes take the water into the various tanks inside the aquarium, and each system must have water that is the appropriate temperature and the appropriate level of salinity for the fish of that system. These things must be monitored around the clock; we can’t stop for weekends or holidays. This is definitely a labor of love for us.”

Brown’s staff, which currently includes two full-time employees and four part-timers, fell victim to some of the budget-saving cuts.

“We’re certainly aware of the budget issues, but we do what we have to do to make sure our animals are healthy and well cared for,” Brown said. “I talked with a fellow marine biologist who said a facility like ours would optimally have 15 full-time employees. So you can see why we’re constantly scrambling to get things done.”

Martin, who minus a couple of months has been a part of the RiverQuarium staff for all of its eight years, said she’s planning a more extensive campaign to get the word out about the education program at the attraction.

“I’d really love to expand our outreach efforts to include more water conservation and water quality programs,” she said. “Our education program in the wet lab is in line with state of Georgia performance standards, which allows us to offer a hands-on experience that students are not going to get in the classroom.”

These ongoing efforts to increase efficiency and program offerings at the RiverQuarium will become moot, though, if adequate funding is not available. Despite the more than $500,000 in city and county cuts, a segment of the community is demanding zero tax-dollar input and even closure of the state-owned facility. That, board member and longtime Albany elected/volunteer official Emily Jean McAfee says, would diminish the community.

“This facility can work here,” McAfee said. “Because of some not very good advice given by outsiders who didn’t understand the demographics or the people in this area, the RiverQuarium has been underfunded from the beginning. We can’t change that, but we can add another component or two to the income stream. We’re actually owned by the (state) Department of Natural Resources, and they can help us by allowing us to become a part of their state network.

“Our tickets here are reasonably priced, and they’ve helped subsidize visitor overhead and allowed us to keep this attraction available to one of the most underserved and underprivileged populations in the country. Certainly any foundation or granting organization would celebrate what we do.”

Still, there are those detractors.

“To the people who have nothing but negative things to say about the RiverQuarium, I’d ask that they call me, let me talk to them about what we have,” McAfee said. “Let me show them what we’ve got. I really believe it won’t be that hard to convince them that this is a facility worth saving.”


Kay523 2 years, 8 months ago

Langstaff has no problem funneling $1 million per year to Chehaw which in turn, pays Langstaff Marketing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Conflict of interest? Now Langstaff wants the Riverquarium run by the Chehaw Director - was that also one of his wife's recommendations? The FRQ has lowered its costs while Chehaw is at the same level it has always been.


Abytaxpayer 2 years, 8 months ago

Well I am one of those detractors! This has been nothing but a folly from the beginning! Sorry but eight years of feeding off Albany taxpayers is way past enough. And nice tid bit to add insult to our injury and boast of the $505,000 for touch screen and wall graphics projects funded by special-purpose local-option sales tax. More Splost pork!


dingleberry 2 years, 8 months ago

If you had three sick children needing medical attention, would you take them to the doctor one at a time? This is what is being faced by the parents of the RQ, ACRI, and Chehaw, our wards. None of these are near being able to survive without public money to supplement sparse gate receipts sprinkled with memberships This has gone on for years and will be a problem as long as the doors are open.

Chehaw cannot make it without substantial taxpayer support. It is not talked about these days but hidden from view, it is still riding our shoulders for $1 million a year as it has for many years. The ACRI can't generate enough gate receipts to pay the utility bill. So these two join the RQ in the quest for funds that we always approach piecemeal every time there is an "emergency". Not in better shape, they are merely not talked about at the moment**

It's time to get all three venues together with the local politicians and have a frank discussion about money-what is needed if you are to survive? Don't expect state money since the state bowed out of the Music Hall of Fame in a similar situation. Don't expect more out of town visitors 'cause we are not and will not be a tourist destination. Don't hold out much hope for long-term donors since such funds are not as plentiful these days.

All three venues have been dancing for many years and it's time to pay the piper. And it's time for the politicians to roll up their sleeves and address this thorny issue right here, right now. Local taxpayers, a dying breed, deserve answers on plans for the future impacting their taxes. The best view of the new "Welcome to Albany" signs may be in the rear view mirror for those who are fed up with the entire package of failure that Albany has become.


Ihope4albany 2 years, 8 months ago

I think there should be some type of series to help citizens understand how successful cities emerge. Getting rid of cultural amenities for families is not the answer. When we use taxpayers money to attract businesses, what is the difference.

I wonder if all these detractors have annual memberships in these entities? I have had on occasion memberships with two of the three because I rotate with all the different npos in Albany, which is a different conversation.

If we don't support our City, how in the world do we think that we are going to attract outsiders to plunk down millions of dollars here. It won't happen!

The sad truth is, that Albany thrived from stolen labor that created old wealth here. Now that the cheap labor boom of the once slave states is over, industries are leaving to exploit other people of color. Some real soul searching instead of escapism will be needed not just for Albany but many cities who are experiencing the same demise.

God help us all recover from European imperialism that has consumed the earth through the farce of capitalism.


PumpkinEater 2 years, 8 months ago

Same story for the entire downtown venue and Chehaw ... needs a compelling identity that is not a classic "neighborhood redevelopment" retread that has not worked and will not work, a massive cohesive compelling exciting gutsy plan for all downtown and tourist public venues and relevant private sector businesses at one time, a plan for installation and marketing... and a major slot for private funding. If private money will not get involved at a major level, the plan is off target. That is how markets work. Private money knows. Public money may help jump start and add a safety cushion, but the load has to be carried largely by the private sector with most profits going to the investors and business owners. Too many uninvested self interests and loud voices in the past have squashed the effort for a focused collective plan to attract the "outsiders" with investment and tourist dollars. They need to get something great for their money.


Abytaxpayer 2 years, 8 months ago

Pumpkin you hit the nail square on the head. Uninvested self-interest.....As I have been saying let the commissioners lead the way and they can donate all their salaries BEFORE donating out tax money. But not one has stepped forward to do anything more than throw more tax dollars at the problems. But then again not one of them has a clue how to run a successful retail business.


FryarTuk 2 years, 8 months ago

ATI was planned so the initial investors would make off with the loot. A few good ole boys got the bacon and the taxpayers got the bill. The ATI story is a sham and disgrace from the beginning. The reality is that private money has not been forthcoming except in meager amounts but some folks have made out like bandits.


whattheheck 2 years, 8 months ago

I guess the question is "Are we going to fish, cut bait, or have a fish fry?". Time for a decision on the future of the Riverquarium, Civil Rights Museum, and Chehaw. What are you willing to pay for.


FryarTuk 2 years, 8 months ago

Cut them all off now! Give Riverquarium to ASU or Chehaw or the GA DNR who owns it. The Civil Re-Write Museum is a joke and should be closed as a public sanctioned facility. Chehaw can develop a plan for self maintenance if the cousins and bosom buddies of all the politicians are eliminated and Jim Fowler brought back in.


whodat 2 years, 8 months ago

best thing for RQ, in my opinion, is for it to become part of ASU in some way, so that it can continue its educational function. Considering our geography, it's way past time that ASU offer diploma programs for conservation biologists, environment and sustainability, hydrology, and water conservation management. These are growing fields and will become vitally important in the years to come. Vision, people!


southernbelle 2 years, 8 months ago

“This facility can work here,” McAfee said. “Because of some not very good advice given by outsiders who didn’t understand the demographics or the people in this area, the RiverQuarium has been underfunded from the beginning.

I'm not getting something here...what would bad advice, not understanding, demographics, and people have to do with the underfunding?? Somehow it's a cart before the horse?? Would the opposites of those four "things" lead to a correct amount of funding??

I'm just feeling either a disconnect here or a poorly-worded philosophy/strategy on the part of Ms. McAfee.


FryarTuk 2 years, 8 months ago

" The emergency funding that the city so graciously provided us . . ." It was the taxpayers, you numbnut. It was the struggling taxpayers of Albany, GA who are represented by a bunch of nimrods who have no idea how to earn a living beyond pulling from the taxpayers' udder. If the beautiful people want Riverquarium, pull the money out of your trust funds and pay for it otherwise shut the mudpuddle down.


Ihope4albany 2 years, 8 months ago

I wonder what happened to my post from earlier.


ZCorp 2 years, 8 months ago

(1.) Close the Riverquarium. Unless.....

(2.) Close up all the usless stores downtown & get mainstream corp. stores

(3.) Why does the hotel do well downtown ? What is it a Hilton (TM) right ?

(4.) People trust mainstream names. Open a Dunkin Donuts / Olive Garden / Small Macys / Etc.... I could go on, Use your Imagination .Downtown Albany could have a lot of Police & Cameras posted for security.

(5.) If something is not done drastic. Downtown Albany will close up for 20 years. Yes, you will have ASU, but outside the college will be totally lost,sad, & depressing from 2013 - 2040. Thank You


iko 2 years, 8 months ago

It is amazing to me that the Herald quotes people who just don't understand why some are so "negative" about Riverquarium. Maybe Ms McAfee (a society crank presiding over the decline of our school system while sitting on the school board) should recall that it was Riverquarium promoters like herself who promised that it would be self-supporting in the first place.


chinaberry25 2 years, 8 months ago

Do you really in a scope of rational thought that if the taxpayers voted down a special option sales tax, that they will vote this one in. I have never been to Riverquarium and do not ever plan to go. But I have heard folks say that it is not much bigger than a high school classroom. If this is true, then this is a waste of taxpayers money. I no longer spend any money in Albany, so I do not care, that is up to you. I do eat out occasionally there, but I never buy gas or groceries anymore. This was over for me after the election. I go out of my way to spend elsewhere and will continue to do so. So if you want the extra taxes go ahead for it will not concern me.


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