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McMahon uses amphitheater success to push $85 million aquarium

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon speaks at a press conference Thursday May 12, 2022
Ellen Abbott
Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon speaks at a press conference Thursday May 12, 2022

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon is firing the latest salvo in his attempt to push a controversial aquarium project through the county Legislature. On Thursday, McMahon used the latest statistics from the St. Joseph’s Health Amphitheater at Lakeview to imply that an aquarium can be successful.

"We’ve developed a model here that can transition to the aquarium so that project will work, and that project’s easier because you don’t have a $2.9 million debt service attached to it,” McMahon said.

Last year, McMahon proposed building an $85 million aquarium in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor, and included it in his proposed budget for this year. But county lawmakers were concerned about spending that much on an aquarium during the pandemic, so they put the money into a contingency fund to be voted on later.

McMahon believes the amphitheater model can be a template for the aquarium.

"It’s time that we learned from the success here, and apply these lessons to the aquarium project,” he said.

And according to McMahon, the Amp has been successful, with 645,000 visitors in the six years since it opened, bringing with it an economic impact of $68 million. The county made $343,000 in a pandemic shortened 2021 season, and is expected to make over $400,000 this year. A reserve account attached to the Amp has $6 million in it, and the Amp brings in over $250,000 in naming rights each year.

The other parallels, according to McMahon, include a string of criticism about the project before it was approved. There are still questions surrounding the aquarium over finances and whether it could lure 500,000 people to Syracuse a year, as a consultant suggests.

McMahon wants it on the legislature’s agenda next month, which is why he’s talking about the success of the amphitheater now. He’s not sure he has the votes now, but is hopeful.

“We have been waiting patiently, engaging patiently, getting some answers,” he said. “Now we have some really good data points now that the books have closed on 2021, on the Amphitheater itself, so this is good data for the legislature to consider and have more faith that the plan we put forward will work."

The project would be paid for with cash, courtesy in part, to some pandemic relief funds, as well as a county surplus.

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.