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McMahon hopeful vote on aquarium will happen by the end of summer

An artist rendering of a proposed $85 million aquarium in the Inner Harbor section of Syracuse
Onondaga County
An artist rendering of a proposed $85 million aquarium in the Inner Harbor section of Syracuse

The Onondaga County Legislature holds its monthly meeting Tuesday, with no sight of a controversial plan to build an aquarium in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor on the agenda. But the project's biggest booster is still optimistic.

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon's push to spend $85 million in surplus county cash to build an aquarium has been under the microscope since he proposed it last fall. Many who don’t like it are skeptical about attendance and cost estimates that were rolled out when the plan was unveiled.

Democrats on the County Legislature have gone as far as coming up with their own list of priorities for the $85 million, including money to address lead paint poisoning in children, school and public safety initiatives and community health programs. McMahon said those Democrats are missing the point. He wants to spend money on tourism, a business sector hit hard by the pandemic.

"When you lose 18 months of business, it takes you a while, if you are small business to bring that back,” McMahon said. “And if we want these small business owners to be hiring engines again, which we do, we need to get more people in and out of venues. And having a state-of-the-art aquarium, nothing like it outside of Boston in the northeast, will bring people here."

McMahon goes so far as to say he’d be willing to listen to other suggestions to spend that $85 million if they are specific plans to boost tourism. In the meantime, he hasn’t been able to get enough county lawmakers on his side to get the aquarium across the finish line. He figures he needs one more legislator to move the project along.

"We’ve been talking about this for eight months now. And no other idea has come forward that can do what this project can do,” he said. “So I think we’re getting close. My hope is we are getting there. But I agree we need to get a vote on this at some point this summer."

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.