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Mayor offers troubled aquarium $500,000 loan

Mayor Dick Greco offered the Florida Aquarium a $500,000 cash advance and some reassurance in troubled times Friday, but that will not solve all of the attraction's problems.

Greco said he will propose to the City Council next week that the city spend the money from contingency funds to help the aquarium catch up on its past-due bills. The money would have to be repaid by Oct. 1, 2000.

The mayor also went on the record to say there is nothing to recent talk about the city selling the aquarium. While Greco tentatively sounded out Busch Gardens and Disney about their interest in the aquarium, he conceded it doesn't make sense to try to sell it if no one wants to buy it.

He is still interested in developing the waterfront around the aquarium into a larger tourist destination, but he doesn't see the aquarium leaving the city's ownership. For one thing, he said, the city's $101-million in aquarium bonds do not allow for such a sale.

Aquarium supporters welcomed Greco's announcement because it will make it easier to raise money from the private sector.

The recently created Florida Aquarium Foundation is working to bring in new members, corporate donors, government grants and philanthropic gifts.

Aquarium fund-raisers see both a history of missed opportunities and the potential for future growth in its membership base. It has dropped from an early high of 28,000 to 7,500 households.

"We lost them because we didn't cultivate them," said aquarium foundation Chairman Thomas duPont. "All we have to do is give them a reason to be a member again."

But like everything else about the aquarium these days, that will require a maddeningly tricky balancing act between living within the aquarium's budget and investing for its future.

Even with the city's $500,000, the aquarium still faces an operating deficit of $1.2-million at the end of its fiscal year in September. City finance director Henry Ennis warned the aquarium not to expect any further help this year.

James Ferman, chairman of the aquarium's board of directors, said it might be necessary to use unpaid private pledges as collateral for a short-term bank loan. The aquarium has about $3.7-million in money pledged but not paid.

Ennis said city officials expect the aquarium to do what it takes to break even next year _ something that the aquarium's board did not expect to do for at least two years.