The Inner Harbor Aquarium project will begin with the design phase

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A rendering of the upcoming $85 million Inner Harbor Aquarium (RENDERING CREDIT: ONONDAGA COUNTY)

SYRACUSE — The next $85 million Inner Harbor Aquarium project will begin with the design phase.

The Onondaga County Legislature narrowly approved the project in a 9-8 vote at its Aug. 2 meeting. Like the lawmakers who voted against it, some segments of the community thought county officials could have spent that money on other issues, including poverty in the Syracuse area.

But ultimately the project was approved, after 10 months of debate over it after McMahon first announced the aquarium initiative in early October 2021.

The aquarium project is an extension of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon told local reporters after the county legislature voted. The idea for the project came from Friends of the Zoo, he said. McMahon thanked zoo officials, such as Executive Director Ted Fox and his team, for their work in giving county officials “the confidence to undertake this.” [project].”

The county executive called the aquarium project “a year-round tourist attraction…that we can sell.” He also noted that the county doesn’t have many year-round tourism-related assets. The project is “in direct support” of Onondaga County’s hospitality and restaurant industry.

“It will attract visitors. It will retain and capture the expenses of families here. It’s quality of life infrastructure for families here in Onondaga County,” McMahon said. “He is a job creator. Hundreds of construction jobs will be created during this project. Hundreds of jobs at the aquarium and in the restaurant and hospitality industry will be created through this aquarium.

McMahon also sees the project as an opportunity to “build on synergies” with other public investments in the STEAM K-12 space. Onondaga County has the only countywide STEAM school to go live in New York State, he noted. STEAM is the abbreviation of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. STEAM School will be housed in the downtown building that previously housed Central High School.

The aquarium project will also provide “unique opportunities” for the county to partner with its higher education and research institutions, McMahon argues.

“This will provide great opportunities to tell one of the greatest stories we have had in our community with the cleanup of Lake Onondaga and its tributaries and to work on the history of this lake and what it means to our community and how for the first time in a generation what is happening around it as it once again becomes the epicenter of recreation and leisure activities,” he said.

McMahon also called the aquarium a “workforce retention and recruitment tool” for companies investing millions and millions of dollars here and “those who were about to land here in Onondaga County”.

He also sees the aquarium as the “necessary stimulus for neighborhood revitalization in this port that has been blocked”. Additionally, Onondaga County heard earlier in the day from private donors interested in partnering, he added.

Once the aquarium design is complete, the county will issue a request for proposals (RFP) for operators.

“Then we can tell you what it looks like. Do we have a public-private partnership? Do we have a non-profit partner? McMahon said in his remarks.

Rosamond Gifford Zoo and Zoo Director Ted Fox will be “deeply involved”. The county will also issue a request for proposals for a general contractor for the project. Local people, minority and women-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, and Syracuse Build apprentices will work on this project.

Syracuse Build is a citywide initiative, housed within CNY Works, supported by CenterState CEO’s Work Train. The program has helped residents participate in pre-apprenticeship programs and earn credentials in “high demand” sectors, including construction; electrical mechanics; heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC; advanced/high-tech manufacturing; business conduct; and software development, as described in a press release from CenterState’s CEO.

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Rozella J. Cook