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Onondaga County lawmakers narrowly approve controversial aquarium

Members of the community packed into the Onondaga County Legislature chambers Tuesday for a contentious vote on County Executive Ryan McMahon's aquarium proposal
Ellen Abbott
Members of the community packed into the Onondaga County Legislature chambers Tuesday for a contentious vote on County Executive Ryan McMahon's aquarium proposal

After a contentious meeting, Onondaga County lawmakers narrowly approved County Executive Ryan McMahon’s plan to build an $85 million aquarium in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor.

In a 9-8 vote, Onondaga County lawmakers gave McMahon the simple majority he needed to move ahead plans to build the aquarium, but it wasn’t easy. The debate over the aquarium has grown since McMahon proposed it last fall, culminating in a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday dominated by a coalition of opponents asking lawmakers to vote no, in a 30-minute public hearing.

"When crime, poverty and a crumbling infrastructure are the visual scars on our landscape, an aquarium is window dressing on a city that needs foundation work,” said one speaker. “Please vote no on the aquarium."

Eight out of 11 Republicans supported the aquarium, brought to the floor by Salina Legislator Deb Cody, who said it’s aligned with a vision of growth for the county.

"Ultimately, the vote is about using surplus funds on an educational and tourism attraction that I believe will grow and enhance our community, and I’m voting to put my faith in this vision for Onondaga County,” Cody said.

Tim Burtis was one of the Republicans who voted no, saying he doesn’t buy some of the cost estimates about the project.

“It doesn’t give me any great delight to go against the County Executive, but I’ve had concerns from the start,” said Burtis.

One bit of drama was the yes vote from Democrat Charles Garland, who was promised a housing project in his district if he voted yes. At one point, he addressed people in the crowd who questioned his loyalty to the African-American community in his southside Syracuse district.

“Don’t ever think it was just about ten houses because anyone who knows me knows where my heart is, and who I’m fighting for,” Garland said.

Shortly after the vote, McMahon spoke to reporters and said much of the opposition was political.

“A lot of this opposition was mean spirited, it was political and it was organized,” said McMahon. “It was a political campaign and that’s how it was run."

McMahon proposed the fresh and saltwater aquarium as an extension of the zoo. He said it will boost tourism, helping a hospitality industry battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and would be an education center for the community. The county expects it to draw a half million visitors a year and generate $50 million in economic activity. Construction will be paid for with cash, and more details on who will run it will come after the design process is complete, which could take up to ten months. After that design process is done, construction can begin.

“It could be up to 18 months for construction because it’s such a unique piece of infrastructure,” said McMahon. “But do the math. Shovels will be in the ground in 2023. But it looks like a 2024 opening."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.