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Tank Wars : Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara are racing forward with plans to build state-of-the-art aquariums. But experts predict it will be a winner-take-all contest.


The first commercial aquarium in the United States was opened in 1856 by legendary showman P.T. Barnum, who recognized the public's fascination with the mysteries of the ocean. But Barnum proved more adept at gauging popular taste than finding adequate aquatic technology. His fish died, his aquarium went out of business, and his famous zinger--"There's a sucker born every minute"--suddenly applied to him.

Nearly 14 decades later, aquatic technology now allows complex ocean ecosystems to thrive in artificial environments, making modern aquariums as attractive as an NFL franchise. Today, the only suckers in aquariums are the slimy creatures attached to the glass.

"Aquariums are hot, that's for sure," said Richard Lyon, a nationally known aquarium consultant based in Los Angeles.

Aquarium fever was sparked by the financial and cultural success of Baltimore's National Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, both of which opened in the early '80s. Other cities saw the potential of an environmentally correct, practically sure-fire tourist attraction.

Since 1990, the number of major aquariums in the United States has grown from about 15 to 20. The five newest aquariums drew a combined total of 4.5 million customers last year.

More aquariums are in the works. In California, the cities of Long Beach, Sacramento, San Pedro, Pismo Beach and Stockton have projects on the front burner. But nowhere has aquarium fever hit swifter or harder than in a concentrated slice of the coast encompassing Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara.

In the span of a few weeks this summer, each city waded into the action by announcing multimillion-dollar proposals to build state-of-the-art aquariums.

Withdrawing $10,000 from its treasury in June, Ventura commissioned a detailed plan for a Ventura Harbor marine educational center and crowed over Jean-Michel Cousteau's connection with the project; Oxnard, with the support of Port Hueneme and Ventura County, countered a month later with a proposal for a Channel Islands Harbor facility similar in size and scope to Monterey's world-class aquarium; and Santa Barbara got into the act a week after Oxnard with a proposal for a deluxe waterfront complex complete with aquarium, maritime museum, IMAX theater and Southwest Museum branch.

Politicians took sides and turned cartwheels. After hearing Montecito-based Rising Hawk Productions pitch the aquarium venture during a Ventura City Council meeting, Councilman Gary Tuttle couldn't believe his community's good luck, saying, "I'm a little humbled. Here we sit in Ventura, and they come to us with a project like this."

Excitement and expectations are running high in the early stages of the three-city aquarium race, but it's likely to end in disappointment. Various experts predict a winner-take-all contest, with the first city to break ground probably knocking the other two out of the tank.

"The first one in would deter the others," said Oxnard developer Martin V. (Bud) Smith, who is spearheading the Channel Islands effort and pitching in with his own money.

Smith also said he didn't think "all three should be built." Aquarium experts agree, questioning whether the public needs or would support a trio of aquariums--though each would be slightly different--in a space of 35 miles.

"It sounds like overkill to me," said Suzanne Lawrenz-Miller, director of the small Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, which opened in 1935.

A lone aquarium in this area, however, would probably clean up, experts say. Right now, there is no major aquarium in the counties of Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles. That means marine professionals can't handle the public's demand for up-close oceanic encounters.

"We have to turn down hundreds of school kids a year," said Carol Spears of the National Park Service, which conducts tide-pool demonstrations at its Ventura Harbor Visitors Center.

Promoters see a local aquarium as an all-day destination for students and families, predicting it will become the biggest tourist attraction in Ventura County. A Channel Islands aquarium is projected to attract as many as 1.5 million visitors a year, meaning a potential annual infusion of $100 million into the area's economy, according to estimates based on California Division of Tourism projections.

Many local hotels, restaurants and shops would enjoy an economic bonanza. But others might not like the invasion of cars and people. In Monterey, numerous merchants near the aquarium reported a dramatic drop-off in business when many of their regular customers were scared off by the traffic.

The city of Ventura's not-in-my-back-yard attitude would undoubtedly play a factor in gaining approval for an aquarium. Ventura Keys' residents recently stopped the city's attempt to put a southbound freeway ramp on Harbor Boulevard--the main artery to the harbor--so the city would have to expect sensitivity to any project bringing an increase in traffic.

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