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Aquarium of Niagara executive director outlines venue's future

Thu, Feb 20th 2020 02:30 pm
Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino gets a little love from a special friend. (Photos by Mark Williams Jr.)
Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino gets a little love from a special friend. (Photos by Mark Williams Jr.)

By Benjamin Joe

Tribune Editor

At an event Wednesday, the Aquarium of Niagara unveiled a new strategic plan and outlined the goals it will pursue in the next three to five years.

Executive Director Gary Siddall highlighted the success the aquarium has had with new exhibits “Aliens of the Sea” and “Penguin Coast,” which cost $500,000 and $3.6 million, respectively.

By summer of 2020, the aquarium plans to open its “M&T Bank Shark & Ray Bay,” a $1.85 million project that will allow patrons to touch sharks and sting-rays during their visit. With its inclusion to the collection of exhibits at the aquarium, it will be the third of three projects in three years.

“This rapid change has resulted in a lot of great things for us,” Siddall said. “We celebrated 305,000 people. We crossed that threshold of over 300,000 visitors as an institution. That is 300,000 people we are imparting with the great work we do here at the aquarium. That is 300,000 people that we are showing that Niagara Falls is a great place to stay, a great place to visit, and there’s a lot of fantastic activities that can support a weekend stay.”

Siddall announced the operating budget for the aquarium has increased by 45% over those three years. He said this is an indication of the hard work of the staff and the support of its board of directors.

“With so much change over such a short period of time, it was important for us to start looking forward,” Siddall continued. “You have to change, not only must you change, but you must be agile when you do, you must be willing to do it, and you must be willing to talk to your stakeholders. Communicate with the people who are using your products, in our case, our visitors.”

Last year, the aquarium hired a business consultant, Zoo Advisors, and started the work of building a mission statement, a vision statement, core values and strategic goals. Zoo Advisors is based out of Pennsylvania and has worked for 50 other zoos and aquariums to develop strategic planning initiatives.

“This plan sought to pull in everyone’s feedback and to ask a lot of questions,” Siddall said. “Through that process, we learned a lot. There were a lot of great things that we heard. We heard that we were a positive light in the community; we’ve heard how much the aquarium has changed; we have realized we’re becoming a regional asset; and we have a history of being a very good thing for the community.”

Other answers were not so glowing.

Siddall said the entranceway looked “very tired.” Inside it still looked “like it was 1965,” the plan said, and the entire aquarium needed to be better known across Niagara and Erie counties and all of Western New York.

“Our mission statement was not reflective of the current work that we do as an organization,” Siddall explained. “It was fitting for the time in the ‘90s when we adopted that mission statement, but it was time to make a shift.”

The new mission statement reads, “With our community and partners, we celebrate our natural wonders and inspire people to make a difference for aquatic life.”

“What we wanted to do was celebrate the fact that we are situated uniquely across the street from an amazing natural wonder,” Siddall said. “It also allowed us to reflect on this idea that we want to do more. We want to be an institution that not only protects aquatic life, here in Buffalo, but an institution that makes a difference for aquatic life (everywhere).”

He noted, “We also adopted a new vision statement, which reads, ‘To be a destination of choice where all are welcome and motivated to join us as a driving force for aquatic life.’ … We want to strive to be that better organization that we know we can be.”

What “makes the aquarium tick,” Siddall said, is its foundational commitment to animal care, financial stability, organizational capacity and partnerships. From these come the goals for the aquarium: enhancing visitor experience, becoming a destination, building community, establishing the brand, and defining and growing its role in aquatic conservation.

“We want to focus on conservation here in Western New York, like our sturgeon,” Siddall said. “We want to think about our sea lions – who have always been a main focus of our collection here – and think about the threats they’re facing in the wild; and address ways we can help their conservation.”

This focus on conservation has sent staff from the aquarium to California to rescue baby sea lions, and may involve sending other people to South America to research the population of Humboldt penguins.

Siddall said people all want the same thing, and that is for the aquarium to expand. This idea will be explored throughout the master plan process.

“As you stand here tonight, you realize we’ve gone through a lot of renovations; there’s not much more room to renovate, which means the aquarium must get bigger,” he said. “We own a fairly substantial amount of property here in Niagara Falls. … As we consider where this expansion goes, as we reflect on what ways we’re going to structure this from a fiduciary perspective, whether the feasibility is accurate, these are all important conversations that we’ll be having over the course of a year.”

The Aquarium of Niagara is located at 701 Whirlpool St., Niagara Falls.

Executive Director Gary Siddall at the microphone. (Photo by Mark Williams Jr.)

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