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.
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.