Jeff Swanagan, who turned around Florida Aquarium, dies at 51

Jeff Swanagan, who turned around the financially foundering Florida Aquarium before building the world's largest aquarium in Atlanta, died Sunday evening of an apparent heart attack. He was 51.

His wife, Suzy Holley, found him on a couch in their home outside Columbus, Ohio, where he ran the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium since last year, said Thom Stork, the Florida Aquarium's CEO. Swanagan laid down to watch a golf tournament after mowing the yard, she told Stork.

"He has to get a great deal of the credit for setting this operation on the right course," Stork said. "He started running it like a business and marketing the attraction side of what we are."

The Florida Aquarium was built on borrowed money and exaggerated projections that tickets bought by hordes of tourist would pay the debts. When the numbers didn't materialize, the city of Tampa took over the mortgage and managers laid off or demoted nearly one-third of its staff.

Many visitors found the attraction boring, with a strict focus on science and Florida creatures. Swanagan loosened things up. He introduced new exhibits, such as Frights of the Forest (bats and snakes), an albino alligator and Dragons Down Under (exotic sea dragons from Australia). Marketers named a sting ray Roseanne Barb.

"If people were paying $66 a year (for memberships), they didn't want to see the same things," said Jack Butcher, the aquarium's board chairman at the time.

By 2002, the facility had paid off $3 million in debt, cut its annual subsidy from the city of Tampa from $1.1 million to $700,000 and saw annual attendance rise from 545,000 to a then all-time high of 620,000.

By then, Swanagan had attracted the attention of Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot and an Atlanta philanthropist. When he first visited Tampa, Swanagan hoped for a big donation. Instead, Marcus offered a job building a grand aquarium.

"He kept telling me Marcus was offering an awful lot of money," Butcher said. "He turned him down three or four times." Swanagan finally gave in.

Organizers eventually raised $290 million — $250 million from Marcus and the rest from Atlanta corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting. Home Depot and UPS. In November 2005, the Georgia Aquarium opened debt-free. It remains the world's largest aquarium by area (555,000 square feet) and water (8 million gallons, fresh and salt).

Last year, he left to become executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Swanagan, a Cleveland native, was recruited by world-renowned animal expert Jack Hanna, a longtime friend and the zoo's director emeritus.

Swanagan didn't smoke or drink and never talked about health problems, Hanna said.

"You could have lined up 1,000 people and he'd have been the last one I'd pick. It's the biggest shock.''

Hanna was director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978 when he met Swanagan, then an Ohio State University student busing bags at a nearby hotel. Hanna hired him as a zookeeper two years later, then promoted Swanagan to education director in 1982.

"He was a visionary,'' Hanna said. "He made the Tampa aquarium a fun place to go to. 'Touch the Heart, Teach the Mind' — that was his slogan."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Jeff Swanagan, who turned around Florida Aquarium, dies at 51 06/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 11:53am]

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