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Inner Harbor aquarium project to begin with design phase

By Eric Reinhardt


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

SYRACUSE — The upcoming $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 during its meeting of Aug. 2. Like the legislators who voted against it, some segments of the community believed county officials could’ve spent that money on other matters, such as poverty in the Syracuse area. 

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

The aquarium project is an expansion of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon told local reporters following the county legislature’s vote. The project idea came from the Friends of the Zoo, he said. McMahon credited 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 “tourism year-round asset … that we can sell.” He also noted that the county doesn’t have many year-round assets related to tourism. The project is “in direct support” of Onondaga County’s hospitality industry and restaurants. 

“It will bring in visitors. It will keep and capture spending here from families. It is a quality-of-life piece of infrastructure for families here in Onondaga County,” McMahon said. “It’s a job creator. Hundreds of construction jobs will be created during this project. Hundreds of jobs at the aquarium and at the restaurant and hospitality industry will be created because of this aquarium.”

McMahon also sees the project as an opportunity to “build on synergies” with other public investments in the K-12 STEAM space. Onondaga County has the only county-wide STEAM school coming online in the state of New York, he noted. STEAM is short for science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. The STEAM school will be housed at the downtown building that was previously home to Central High School. 

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

“It will provide great opportunities to tell one of the greatest stories we’ve had in our community with the cleanup of Onondaga Lake and its tributaries and work in the history of this lake and what it’s meant to our community and how for the first time in a generation what is happening around it as it becomes the epicenter for recreational and leisure activity once again,” he said. 

McMahon also called the aquarium a “workforce retention and recruitment tool” for the businesses that are investing millions and millions of dollars here and “the ones that were on the precipice of landing here in Onondaga County.” 

He also sees the aquarium as the “stimulus needed for neighborhood revitalization in that harbor that has been stalled.” In addition, Onondaga County heard from private donors earlier that day who are interested in partnering, he added.

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

“We will then be able to tell you what that looks like. Do we have a public-private partnership? Do we have a nonprofit partner?” McMahon said in his remarks. 

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo and zoo director Ted Fox will be “deeply involved.” The county will also issue an RFP for a general contractor for the project. Local people, minority and women-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, and apprentices from Syracuse Build will be working on this project.

Syracuse Build is a mayoral initiative, housed within CNY Works, supported by CenterState CEO’s Work Train. The program has helped residents get involved in pre-apprenticeship programs and work toward credentials in “high-demand” sectors, including construction; electrical mechanics; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC; advanced/high-tech manufacturing; commercial driving; and software development, as described in a CenterState CEO news release.   

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