VANCOUVER — A privately owned American entertainment company is the new owner of the Vancouver Aquarium, after the previous owner couldn't maintain operations due to the financial impacts of the pandemic.
Full ownership has been acquired by Georgia-based Herschend Enterprises, the operator of numerous U.S.-based attractions, including Dollywood in Tennessee.
The agreement transferring ownership from Ocean Wise Conservation Association to Herschend was signed on Wednesday, the aquarium said in a statement.
Clint Wright, the aquarium's chief operating officer, will continue in his role, while Ocean Wise remains an independent ocean conservation organization.
The agreement secures the futures of the 64-year-old aquarium and its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and includes an annual donation of one per cent of the aquarium's gross revenues to support the Ocean Wise conservation program, the statement said.
The Vancouver Aquarium has been closed for all but a short time since the early days of the pandemic, which led to severe financial challenges. It faced the risk of permanent closure this spring, despite support from donations, corporations and the provincial and federal governments, Ocean Wise president Lasse Gustavsson said Thursday.
Ocean Wise "left no stone unturned" looking for a solution, he said, but it became clear last fall they would not have the money to continue operating the aquarium and began reaching out to more than 70 potential partners in British Columbia and globally.
The non-profit organization started negotiating exclusively with Herschend in January after a "very thorough process," he said, adding prospective buyers had to fulfil certain criteria around operational experience, financial capacity, mission and values alignment.
"We were interested only in the right partner," Gustavsson said.
He described Herschend as "capable and experienced aquarium operators. They are committed to the highest standards of animal care. They also bring the resources and the long-term perspective that will set up the aquarium for sustainable success."
Gustavsson declined to comment when asked about the sale price of the aquarium.
Eric Rose, executive director of Herschend Family Entertainment, said the company plans to maintain the aquarium's "unique brand and values," as well as existing relationships with schools and community groups. Their first step will be to engage with the aquarium's many stakeholders to hear their ideas and suggestions for the future, he said.
"Conservation will also remain a core to our mission, including the excellent work that the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre has done for decades," he told a news conference.
"We're going to be bringing financial resources, creative resources, business process resources and basically looking at us as an enabler or a support structure to allow the local management to do what they do best, and that's run a world-class aquarium."
The Vancouver Aquarium committed in 2018 to phase out the display of cetaceans such as whales and dolphins, whose captivity has stirred local and international controversy, and Rose said Herschend has no plans to challenge previous decisions.
Asked about the business case for purchasing the aquarium that remains closed to the public, Rose said the company took a long-term view to post-pandemic recovery.
"What will not change is Vancouver, British Columbia, will always be an incredible tourism destination," he said. "So, if we can get through the next couple of months or the next couple of years, it was kind of a no-brainer for us to reach out."
A statement from Herschend CEO Andrew Wexler said the company has always considered the Vancouver Aquarium the "gold standard" for "animal care, educational focus and exceptional family entertainment."
"Herschend intends to build on the aquarium’s exemplary track record and enhance the things that have made it so successful, while remaining true to the aquarium’s founding principles," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.
The Canadian Press