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McAfee: RiverQuarium needs new business model

The Flint RiverQuarium

The Flint RiverQuarium

ALBANY, Ga. — In her first half-day as the RiverQuarium’s interim CEO, volunteer Emily Jean McAfee said it would be premature to lay out all of the changes that the organization must make to survive.

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Emily Jean McAfee

But she said one thing is clear — business as usual at the Flint RiverQuarium is over.

“Even if we hadn’t been in a recession, I don’t think we would’ve made enough money through the turnstiles to run the organization like we need to,” McAfee said Wednesday in her first interview since the RiverQuarium board she chairs voted to eliminate CEO Sanders Lewallen’s position.

“The attraction part of the RiverQuarium is good — we’re extremely proud of it — but it just isn’t enough. We must be committed to changing the way we do business and changing our business model if we want to keep our doors open,” she said.

Instead, she says the organization should refocus on its roots — education and the promotion of conservation and stewardship.

“So much of our lives depend on our water supply, especially around here when you talk about agriculture and the river, that we should be doing a lot of talking about water quality and conservation, focusing on the educational opportunities,” McAfee said.

McAfee said that she’s started the process of meeting with the RiverQuarium staff to discuss possible changes at the organization, vowing that no stone will go unturned in an effort to find ways to make the organization more efficient and to search for new sources of revenue from both public and private sources.

“I see our future being one where there are opportunities for new relationships with partners and collaborators, and not just the ones that write checks — ones that will help us streamline the organization,” McAfee said. “Efficiency is our top priority at this point.”

She pointed to one such collaboration with Darton State College, which is lending help to the RiverQuarium in the form of grant writing assistance. A similar collaboration likely will come in the future from Albany State, she said.

And she didn’t rule out a proposition offered by city commissioners to merge the RiverQuarium with Chehaw, but did stop short of saying she’d support the consolidation.

“I don’t know how our partnerships will look or how they’ll be set up, but there will be a study or an analysis that will allow the board to make an informed decision and not one made in haste,” McAfee said. “When we were last at the commission, there were some suggestions that were made that I believe were largely political and it’s hard to think straight when you’re under the gun of politics.”

The decision to let Lewallen go, she maintained, was based on numbers, not performance.

“When he came to work for us, we were upfront about our challenges,” McAfee said. “And those challenges continued during the time that he was here. We just couldn’t afford to keep him on ... we were not going to terminate Sanders, but we just had no choice.”

McAfee declined to say how much Lewallen was making or how much the board would save by cutting his position, but did say that he was making less than the former RiverQuarium executive director, Scott Loehr, who was making $99,000 when he left in 2011, according to RiverQuarium tax records.

Comments

rightasrain 1 year, 8 months ago

The new "business model" is simply close the place down, and let it go the way of the old Borad Street bridge. But, Albany is a "wanna be" city whose largest population is dead beat welfare moms, illigetimate kids, gangs, drug dealers, sperm bank "dads", and a City Commission/Mayor who can't manage anything.

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chinaberry25 1 year, 8 months ago

This aquarium was paid for by the state of Georgia, but that was that. Private monies need to be sought for that is how the one in Atlanta operates. It will never survive with the tourist trade in Albany. You go there once and that is all you need. Like Jack Stone said about Chehaw, you can only see the monkeys so many times. It is too small to add new items that mostly we see for free in the woods.

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chinaberry25 1 year, 8 months ago

BTW, I bet you could get a supervisor for $25,000 per year. You hire these folks who make what a principal in DCSS makes. I can promise you the principal more than earns their keep. As far as CEO, have you never heard that titles come cheap.

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tocar 1 year, 8 months ago

The RiverQuarium is what it is and I don't know how you can promote it enough to attract more visitors. It was doomed to be a money pit from day one. If you have visited once, I don't think you would keep going back over and over and there are just so many people that visit this area of the state. We are not a city of tourism. We are located in rural south Georgia in an agricultural part of the state.

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SlingShot 1 year, 8 months ago

Tocar when you say we're a rural city I agree. But in the same way Coulquitt, Ga. Supports Swamp Gravy Albany should support The aquarium and Chenaw. Both are great family places that do more to educate our children then say some hokey arches or the spending of just shy of half a million the city spent last year on studies an consultants, that were nothing but joke.

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dingleberry 1 year, 8 months ago

Instead, she says the organization should refocus on its roots — education and the promotion of conservation and stewardship.

Focusing on education et al won't make one iota of difference with the general population who are more interested in being entertained rather than educated. While children can be "educated" during one visit, repeat visits are more a matter of being "entertained". If it isn't entertaining, children won't coerce parents to take them on return visits. Watch a number of children who seem to enjoy a visit and take note of what interest them, like the crawl through tunnels. The Macon Museum of years past constructed a replica of a limestone cave which to this day my grown children talk about--it was fun to them and we went often because it was entertaining. Perhaps they were also educated elsewhere in the facility but it was "fun" that brought them back.

The original "Venom" exhibit was spectacular but most of what has been seen since has not,been even close. The "Invasive Species" now there is "educational", particularly for those in south FL, but holds ones interest about as much as a bowl of cold grits. The theater would have drawn interest if it had offered a wider variety of content but when combined with the selection of non-IMAX projection system, the whole movie effort has vanished.
A small facility in a poverty city off the beaten path of roads to anywhere with a budget that does not offer funding for periodic venue updates needs more than a different business model--it needs a miracle! Focusing on its "roots" of education and conservation is admirable but simply won't pay the bills. And many locals, who have never "bought into" the facility and perhaps not even seen the inside of it, won't embrace the use of more public money to save it.

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Bulldawg 1 year, 8 months ago

Why is the "revelation" of the need for a new business model being mentioned now? Why couldn't Mr.Lewallen come to the same conclusion? The situation is obvious, the Riverquarium is simply not financially solvent. This is one of those things that sounds really good for the community, but it just doesn't work financially. I think this issue will continue to be money issue for the city. The city simply cannot keep casting taxpayers money to the wind.

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Cartman 1 year, 8 months ago

What is so difficult about closing this place down?

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FryarTuk 1 year, 8 months ago

Doesn"t it revert to the DNR?

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whattheheck 1 year, 8 months ago

It does belong to the State of Ga. The problem, Carts, is politicians and civic leaders willing to admit Albany could not make it work. This is not unique, however, since the Music Hall of Fame in Macon, operated by an authority set up by the state has already gone belly up when the state subsidies quit. Others will follow. But, the Good Life will be left with a big blue hole filled with green slime when the pumps stop and it will become the poster boy for a failing downtown.

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43cop 1 year, 8 months ago

Emily Jean knows this is a no-win situation and is only trying to please the City-County Commissioners by taking this place over. This I commend her for, but when there is nothing to work with, then shut it down. State monies built it, so call Deal and tell him this is his baby, we don't want it even with the so-called agreement. Sue us, everybody else does. Let "Bodine" and the Mayor manage it, they have plenty of money and certainly have the time.

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FryarTuk 1 year, 8 months ago

"Let "Bodine" and the Mayor manage it, they have plenty of money" whhaaaaaaaat? No, Gosh NO! Don't want it! Can't afford it. Call all those AlbanyTomorrow folks and give it to them.

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NotVinceDooley 1 year, 8 months ago

It ain't your business model, it's your location, both within Albany and within Georgia. I've been gone since the late 80's and when I come back to visit I am advised not to go downtown after dark or go unarmed. So I'm going to drive an hour and a half off major highways to go put myself in jeopardy to see a half-baked fresh water aquarium? I don't think so. If I'm going downtown, it will be for Jimmies, then I'll skedaddle the heck back out of there.

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J.D._Sumner 1 year, 8 months ago

You should laugh at who ever advised you not to come downtown after dark. It's obvious you haven't been in town lately, especially downtown. I've worked downtown for six years, including late nights, I've lived a half mile from downtown for more than a year and, other than some neighbor issues and your typical juvenile delinquency, have had absolutely zero problems.

If you've been gone since the 1980's, (which by the way is when Albany was the so-called murder capital of the world; this past year we had the lowest number of murders since they started keeping annual stats on murders back in the early 1970's, maybe you should just focus on your own home town instead of venting non-constructive criticism about something you obviously know nothing about.

You, and everyone else who posts here or lives in Albany-Dougherty County, can either part of the solution or be part of the problem. The first step is being informed.

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FryarTuk 1 year, 8 months ago

J.D., are you saying that during the last year there have been absolutely zero crime problems within a half mile from downtown other than juvenile delinquency?

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Cartman 1 year, 8 months ago

He said he had zero probs. He didn't say there were no probs. he was simply offering his own anecdotal experience to make a point.

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FryarTuk 1 year, 8 months ago

I'm not so sure he wasn't generalizing the point (safety downtown) using a report on the absence of criminal activity within a halfmile of downtown.

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iko 1 year, 8 months ago

J.D. Please publish the studies and reports which claimed the Riverquarium would be self-sufficient. Please publish the names of the authors. These people are either crooks or incompetents and should be barred from future city work.

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whattheheck 1 year, 8 months ago

So, JD, what is the solution to Albany's problems, in your mind, other than being an informed cheerleader? What do we need to tackle first other than attitude, as you seem to say?

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NotVinceDooley 1 year, 7 months ago

Well, there, JD, I seem to have touched a nerve. That's one thing I recall from my days in Albany, how touchy people were about any criticism of their hometown. I was advised by a number of lifetime Albany residents. But, either way, you still can't change Albany's geographic location, or its economic realities.

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Bulldawg 1 year, 8 months ago

Well put JD. Ignorance is not bliss in this situation.

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VietVet1 1 year, 8 months ago

Ten years from now you'll be reading/writting the same issue and losing money. It's like Chehaw all over again.

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whattheheck 1 year, 8 months ago

Or perhaps "deja vu all over again", eh Yogi? The more things change, the more they stay the same, with a new name or game, around here. Put ACRI, RQ, and Chehaw in a bag, shake vigorously, and whichever one falls out first is identical to the two still in the bag when it comes the need for money.

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whattheheck 1 year, 8 months ago

That things must change is a fact, as Ms McAfee points out. However, I am puzzled at the reluctance to discuss Sanders' salary in light of the fact that public subsidies have certainly exceeded it just as they did with other CEOs whose salaries have always been easily identified in IRS Form 990s. Sounds much like the "Catherine Glover cloak of secrecy" although I don't think this is really the same situation.

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trudy2 1 year, 8 months ago

Just like your Civic Center.

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PumpkinEater 1 year, 8 months ago

Some of us went through all this from the very start of this last "major" revitalization effort beginning about 10 years ago with Turtle Park, the RQ, the Hilton, bringing the original Wildcats arena football team to town, seeding blocks with new restaurants, updating retail storefronts etc etc. Quickly enough it became quite evident that the local "market" (the real target market with spending power) was simply not large enough and motivated enough and the offerings not different enough from "neighborhood" offerings for the downtown offerings to be consistently sustained by local consumers alone (Harvest Moon's revenues tripled after it moved to a space with 30 fewer seats). To "focus" on the local market primarily instead of only on a secondary or tertiary basis is the kiss of death and simply trades dollars from other local businesses, at best...a zero sum gain. The ONLY way to sustain what is commonly envisioned for this downtown in terms of a successful mix (including restaurants and attractions on a sustainable basis) is to design it as a tightly defined and clearly identified attraction as a whole...something that attracts people, even if not all people, from Atlanta, I-75 and way way beyond. Something that can be described in one short sentence or soundbite. No one is going to come from Atlanta to go to a bar or restaurant or resale shop. Put up crosses, put animal exhibits and stores with stuffed animals everywhere. Make it all about music..Ray. Whatever. Pick one. Probably the very best choice is to make it all about conservation. Tie in the river, Chehaw with a multi-sensory experience, let Mr. Fowler put something downtown, tie in the RiverQ, finish the river themed puppet theatre that is half-built, put in a corporately sponsored environmental children's hands-on museum, tie in Radium Springs. This is all not a people-failure problem, it's matching a product with a market. There are the corpses of several who tried to make it work and got bashed lying there. What lacks is the singular entrepreneurial gutsy vision that the whole downtown follows. AND it need not cost a fortune more. Quit over-building and then value engineering out good features like the RiverQ and Civil Rights Museum did. The platform for growth is still there, but do not discourage those with vision and courage. Find the right one and give it a run. The internet successes show it all the time. Hello Disney. Good luck.

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PumpkinEater 1 year, 8 months ago

I will send you a bill for $150,000 for my strategic plan :-)

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whattheheck 1 year, 8 months ago

And Chris will send you a check next week. :)

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Oldguy 1 year, 8 months ago

How does one become a consultant? I would like to get y hands on some of that money! I guess we do not have people in positions of leadership with the intelligence to handle their responsibilities without some outside source explaining to them what should be done. Let's build another arch on Broad Avenue fro the new bridge and one on Oakridge at the river. Heck lets put some on the Liberty Expressway while we are at it and on Moultrie road also. While we are at it put some more Welcome to Albany signs up. The problem is that we keep electing these idiots.

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