The Georgia Aquarium Bilked Taxpayers into Financing a Dolphin Exhibit by Using a Program Designed to Help Stuggling Families

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In a classic bait-and-switch the Georgia Aquarium managed to con the government out of money expressly targeted to benefit low income communities, in order to finance the expansion of their dolphin exhibit in 2010.  Using the New Markets Tax Credit Program (NMTC Program) that was established to encourage investments in low income areas, the Georgia Aquarium received a significant tax credit in exchange for investment in Community Development Entities (CDEs).

According to publicly available tax documents, in 2010 the Georgia Aquarium established the Georgia Aquarium Foundation as their fundraising entity, and handed over $20 million to the foundation for this scheme.

The United States Census Bureau reports that Atlanta has just 22.6% of the population living below the poverty level, and according to Atlanta Downtown the median 2006 income was $45,000 in the area, where high rise condominiums are selling for as much as 2 million dollars…hardly what the government had in mind when they set the standard of 26% below poverty in order to qualify for the NMTC Program.
Invest Atlanta reported:

”The Georgia Aquarium is very pleased with the success of the partnership with the Atlanta Development Authority, SunTrust Bank and Wells Fargo,” said Matt Hodgdon, senior vice president and CFO at the Georgia Aquarium. “The new gallery will not only help increase the tourism draw to downtown Atlanta and create new jobs, but it will also allow us to educate and inspire our guests to care for these magnificent animals.”
“As this was our first investment with Imagine Downtown, it’s only fitting that we make a big splash by being part of this innovative financing package for the new dolphin exhibit,” said Jess Lawhorn, senior vice president for Wells Fargo. “We are thrilled to be part of this tremendous partnership, helping the aquarium expand its role both as a major attraction and as a large direct and indirect job creator for downtown Atlanta.”
“The Georgia Aquarium has made a significant impact over the past five years in downtown Atlanta, and we’re proud of our longstanding partnership,” said Jenner Wood, chairman, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank’s Atlanta/Georgia Division. “SunTrust is pleased to participate in the funding of these important projects that will create more jobs and opportunities for local residents and enhance the Aquarium’s operations.”
The New Markets Tax Credit funding helps to recapitalize the aquarium and not only positions it to be successful in its ongoing operations, but also will allow it to continue with other planned expansion and rehabilitation projects currently on the drawing board.
This $120 million expansion project is an 84,000-square-foot dolphin exhibit and theater with support areas to properly feed and care for the marine mammals. The project, which created an estimated 700 construction jobs and is expected to generate 320 permanent operational jobs, is set to open to the public in the spring of this year. The dolphin exhibit is the first and largest in a series of capital expenditure projects the Georgia Aquarium is expected to undertake in the next seven years with an estimated total capital cost of almost $250 million. The Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, has become a major economic institution since its opening in 2005, attracting more than 2.2 million visitors annually.”

While a legal non-profit corporation, the Georgia Aquarium is well financed and pays its employees astounding six figure salaries – for instance the salary for their head veterinarian in 2010 was $363,035 including bonuses and other compensations.
During this period the Aquarium also acquired Marineland of Florida after first deftly establishing a “Dolphin Conservation Field Station” there, while maintaining the owner of “entities that controlled Marineland of Florida”, James Jacoby, as one of the Aquarium’s directors (although the Aquarium reports that he “did not participate in the board meeting discussions regarding Marineland”). A blogger notes that:

“On 1-3-2011: Marineland of Florida announces the park has been sold to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta for 9.1 million from developer Jim Jacoby. Officials announce no immediate changes are planned for Marineland of Florida. Since Jacoby, a land developer who is on the Georgia Aquarium board, obviously had the connection to unload Marineland after he purchased it in 2001, and then guts and destroys this once historic landmark. The original Marineland of Florida was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. And thanks to Jacoby Marineland of Florida is now only a distant memory for many former visitors. Many websites do not recommend visiting todays Marineland. The main attraction is swimming with the dolphins for 20 minutes at a cost of $149. Admission to see very little is $8.50 for an adult and $4.oo for children. But everyone should go and judge for themselves.”

Why would the Aquarium want this dated facility? In part, they will use it to rescue marine animals, a sure way to get free specimens for their exhibits. From their media announcement:

“The acquisition of Marineland is part of an overall long-term strategy on behalf of Georgia Aquarium to expand the positive benefits of its programs throughout the Southeastern U.S. In 2008, Georgia Aquarium opened the Dolphin Conservation Field Station (DCFS) at Marineland, a joint venture with Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center, immediately adjacent to the historic Marineland property. Among other initiatives, DCFS is dedicated to studying marine animals off the coast of Georgia and northeast Florida and rescuing and rehabilitating stranded animals. Now under the same ownership and direction, DCFS and the Dolphin Conservation Center at Marineland are expected to align even more closely in the future.”

The Georgia Aquarium Benefactor, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer Bernard Marcus was co-founder of the Home Depot and is both successful and philanthropic in life, so this reverse Robin hood maneuver, in which he is robbing the poor to help the well-to-do is hard to justify. He knows how to work the system, and works it to get what he wants.
Right now what he wants is to be the first institution in two decades to import wild caught beluga whales for captive display, and there is a maelstrom of protest. (More on this issue can be found here).
This seems a dangerous precedence, and a return to past eras when the wealthy could trample the rights of citizens.

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