As the S.C. Aquarium moves into its 10th year along the Charleston waterfront, it looks toward the next decade from a comfortable financial perch.
The aquarium earned $1.1 million in profit from operations during the first three quarters of 2009, compared with $336,000, or only about one-third of that, during the same time last year.
And aquarium President and Chief Executive Kevin Mills said the attraction expects a $2 million upswing in its bottom line next year.
By the end of January the aquarium will repay the remaining balance of the $12 million debt from its opening in 2000.
With a wide grin, Mills said, "We're very, very, very close. We're just looking for a few key donors to take us over the edge."
Clearing that expense changes the numbers game at the attraction.
As Mills explained, "We're always in the black but, because of debt service, the money goes out the door."
With extra cash available, the aquarium plans to update its 10-year-old building with fresh paint and carpeting, routine maintenance that had been postponed previously, and new vehicles and equipment for staff.
Life after debt will mean a dramatic turnaround for employees too, who took off two weeks without pay between the end of 2008 and the start of this year.
"It absolutely means pay raises," Mills said. "It's more than salary. We're hoping to be in the position to invest in more staff training, more staff enrichment."
Aquarium employees most recently received raises in April 2008 but should see a bump in pay by January, according to Mills.
Part of the reason for the success: About 12 percent more people have visited the aquarium this year than in 2008. That's 3 percent higher attendance than an aggressive forecast predicted and a number that put the attraction already ahead of 2008 totals by October.
Officials credit Penguin Planet, an exhibit featuring four male warm-weather birds, which opened in March. Following the feathered swimmers' arrival, the aquarium saw record attendance throughout the spring and summer.
Every Saturday and Sunday during the holidays an aquarium staff member will roll out one of the birds in a Waddle Wagon so visitors can check them out close up.
Next year the aquarium plans to bring in an albino alligator to replace the penguins. The attraction also will introduce a four-dimensional theater where visitors can feel the water from a dolphin's splash or the brush of a fish swimming over their feet.
Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or firstname.lastname@example.org.