Audra Burns checked herself one last time in the mirror. Her knee-length blue dress and business jacket had no wrinkles or stains, and her curly red hair was properly brushed and held back with a simple barrette. She had on enough makeup to look presentable without drawing too much attention to herself. She was as ready as she was going to be. She picked up the tablet with her presentation from the counter and left the restroom, heading for the elevator up to the meeting room where members of the town council had arranged to hear her pitch. She rode up to the ninth floor and walked down to the town council offices. There was an administrative assistant sitting at a desk just inside the office.
“May I help you?” She asked.
“Yes, I’m Audra Burns. I’m here for a meeting with Jonas Fulton and some of the other town council members.”
“Oh, yes, Ms. Burns. We’ve been expecting you. The conference room is right this way.”
The young woman led Audra down a short hall to a typical conference room. When she ushered Audra into the room, a handsome black man was already sitting at the table. He stood up when she entered and held out his hand.
“You must be Audra Burns. It is good to meet you in person after so many phone conversations.”
“And you must be Jonas. It’s good to meet you as well.” Audra replied while shaking his hand.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee, water?”
“Some water would be great, thank you.”
“Have a seat, and I’ll be right back. The others will be joining us shortly.”
“Thank you. Is there a projector I can hook up to?”
“Of course. There should be a cord under the table at that chair right there.” Said Jonas as he pointed to a chair near the head of the table. Audra sat in the chair and found a small shelf under the table with a cord for the projector and a remote control. She connected her tablet and queued up the first slide in her presentation, then used the remote to start up the projector. About the time she finished, Jonas returned, followed by a tall man in a brown suit.
“This is Gerard Sikes, another one of our council members.” Said Jonas. Audra introduced herself and shook his hand. Two more people came in quick succession, one a motherly looking woman named Sandra Beall, and the other an older man named Layton Jones. Once the introductions were through, Audra began her presentation.
“Thank you all for agreeing to meet with you today. I’m sure Mr. Fulton has told you about my proposed project. My hope is that after I show you what I have planned you will be willing to help support me. Presenting the Aquarium of the Future! A future jewel on Mobile Alabama’s waterfront that will be the centerpiece of your city.”
Audra continued with her well-practiced spiel, showing slides with architectural drawings and computer renderings of the proposed aquarium. The aquarium had been her dream for many years, and she had developed a plan for the ultimate aquarium experience. All of the other aquariums she had visited had many small tanks of water with a few limited species of fish in each one. The newer ones often had one or two very large tanks, often with acrylic tunnels through them so that people could experience being surrounded by water and swimming fish. Audra’s proposal would be an aquarium with a single huge water tank, 5 million gallons of water. Wrapped around three sides of the water tank would be the spaces for people, two floors full of interactive displays with the obligatory touch tank, museum store, and cafeteria. Three tubes would cross through the water, with two on the bottom of the tank and one crossing diagonally above them surrounded on all sides by water, with a clear floor.
Instead of isolating different kinds of fish with aquarium walls, Audra planned to create mini-ecosystems within her huge tank. One section would be a coral reef with living coral and all the colorful fish associated with that biome, while the other end of the tank would feature large open spaces for pelagic fish. The two story depth of the aquarium would allow for bottom dwellers to be separated from surface-oriented fish.
When she finished describing the aquarium itself, she started to talk about the financial benefits of such a building.
“A large aquarium can attract a great many tourists to the city. The Chattanooga aquarium pulls in over a million visitors annually, and 500 million dollars of development in the form of hotels, restaurants, and such followed. The Newport aquarium in Cincinnati had a similar effect. Think of the benefits such a large influx of visitors would bring to Mobile!”
Mr. Sikes chimed in. “If the aquarium brings those visitors. We’ve been sold this kind of story before. A big hotel, a conference center, but the visitors tend to bypass Mobile on their way to the beach, and then we’re stuck with a decaying building and unpaid taxes.”
“But the beach is a part-time attraction. Tourists only go to the beach in the warm months, perhaps 5 months a year. And as you said, they tend to drive through Mobile on the way. But an aquarium would be open year-round, and even in the summer, a lot of those beach goers might choose to stay in Mobile for a day so that they can visit the aquarium before or after their beach trip.”
Mr. Jones spoke up at this point. “We already have an aquarium in Mobile. I go to the Estuarium with my grandkids a couple of times a year. What do we need another one for?”
“The Estuarium is a great small educational aquarium. I visited it just yesterday. But it is a local attraction at best. A larger aquarium would pull people from a much greater distance, and I would hope that we would develop a cooperative relationship with the Estuarium. Perhaps we could sell a double pass for both institutions, with the larger aquarium pulling in the crowds and the Estuarium concentrating on hands-on instructional experiences for schoolchildren. Experience has shown that having multiple similar attractions actually brings more tourists and encourages them to stay longer.”
“So, what’s the catch?” Asked Mrs. Beall. “If this is such a great idea, why don’t you just build it?”
“Well, we have several banks lined up to help with the financing, but before they commit so much money they want to see that the community is backing up the development.”
“What kind of backing are you looking for?”
“For one, we would need help in obtaining a site. We need a waterfront location with appropriate zoning, available parking, and good access. In addition, the banks are looking for financial backing to offset some of the initial costs. There are several ways to accomplish that. The city of Newport, for example, provided the site and prepared the concrete pad for the Newport Aquarium. In addition, the state of Kentucky gave a refund of state sales taxes for the first 10 years, with an upper limit and as long as at least 25% of the visitors came from out of state. The details of exactly what kind of help you could give would be dictated by your unique situation. That is why I wanted to come and talk to you, so that you could have time to decide if Mobile was interested and what incentives the city would be prepared to offer.
“And what do you expect the total cost will be for your aquarium?”
“Well, of course that will depend on the details, but we estimate it will cost between 60 and 70 million dollars.”
“Jonas, do you think this is a good idea? It sounds like a big investment.”
“I think it might be a good idea. That’s why I invited Ms. Burns here to present it to us. Of course, there’s a lot to discuss before we make any decisions.”
There was indeed a lot more discussion, and eventually Audra was excused so that the council members could continue their deliberations in private. She returned to her hotel room to wait for the result. Late that evening a call came from Jonas Fulton.
“Hello, this is Audra Burns.”
“Hi Audra. This is Jonas.”
“Jonas. Thank you for calling. So what did you decide?”
“Well, we couldn’t really come to an agreement. Gerard and I think we should back you, but Sandra and Layton think it would be too costly and we should spend our money on roads and police instead.”
“So what does that mean? How will you decide?”
“We’ve agreed to bring it up in a full council meeting next week.”
“Do you need me to make a presentation again?”
“If you can. Are you available next Tuesday?”
“I’ll clear my schedule so I can be here.”
“Thank you Audra. I’m sorry to drag it out this way.”
“I understand. That’s how government works sometimes.”
“I’ll try to talk to the other council members and prepare the ground for Tuesday. Have a good evening.”
“Thank you Jonas. You have a good evening as well.”
Audra was somewhat pleased at the phone call. A meeting with the full council was what she had hoped to gain by talking with this select group. It would have been better if all four of them were on board, but now she would get the chance to make her case in a public forum. There would likely be reporters in attendance, especially if she called the TV stations beforehand. If they reported positively on the aquarium, that would add pressure on the council to accept. Audra made some notes and then went to bed. She had an early flight in the morning.