City council members voted 5-1 on Tuesday to continue moving forward with a $ 1 million grant to SeaQuest, an Idaho-based company that hopes to create an aquarium in the Grand Cities Mall and could be an economic boon to a city where retail has been in decline for years and whose business leaders commissioned a study suggesting that “experiential” businesses could be an economic boon.
“We have an opportunity which, in my opinion, should certainly not be immediately shot down without further evaluation,” said Mayor Brandon Bochenski. “I’m not a big fan of the public money invested in these types of projects, but I think something has to trigger the growth of our city for experiences and for retail. “
Further votes on the grant have not been fixed. The soonest possible, according to city administrator Todd Feland, is a preliminary vote on a fleshed-out grant agreement and economic analysis on Monday, August 23, and a final vote on the same on Tuesday, September 7.
Council members unofficially voted last week to ask city staff to further refine the grant, and their vote on Monday confirmed that plan. In the meantime, council members have reportedly received a plethora of emails and other messages from residents concerned about the history of issues in its other locations, including animal negligence and non-payment of its debtors. PETA members and other animal rights activists have sued the company for years, and several emails from concerned residents were provided during Monday’s meeting.
Board member Bret Weber, who ran a pizza delivery chain in Utah before moving to Grand Forks, said he received emails from people fiercely opposed to the aquarium company, but he also noted that Salt Lake City had changed for the better after it built parts of the city to host the Winter Olympics in 2002.
“It sounds like a fantastic opportunity to improve our local retail business. It feels like an opportunity to create family events all year round, ”Weber said.
Board member Jeannie Mock, Monday’s only ‘no’ voice, said she was initially excited about the company’s hope of moving into the mall, but later worried that the town would take as well as animal bites and other problems documented by federal regulators at existing SeaQuest sites. She suggested that the city issue a request for proposals for city money.
Council Chairman Dana Sande wondered if companies similar to SeaQuest would be interested in the city’s million-dollar bill.
“I’m not trying to say that two in the bush is better than one in the hand, but, if the city has to invest a million dollars, there might be another aquarium that wants to be here,” he said. Sande said, wondering who else would have knocked on the city’s figurative door if she had announced that she had money to spend on an aquarium grant.
Board member Katie Dachtler, who left Monday’s meeting earlier on a work obligation, told the Herald she would have voted against further exploration of the grant.
Monday’s meeting also provided an opportunity for SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino to defend his company against allegations of animal abuse and other issues. Covino refuted one speaker’s characterization of SeaQuest aquariums as “roadside zoos” and insisted that the legal problems of his brother, who was jailed for illegally transporting spotted eagle rays and sharks lemon, among other alleged misdeeds, were not his. He also questioned the legitimacy of a “death diary” reported by another outlet which would show hundreds of animals died in a Covino aquarium.
“It’s a reputable company,” said Covino. “It is the fastest growing petting zoo company in the history of the world. Nobody did what we did, and that’s because we’ve had so much success with the customer experience, we’ve been able to comply with regulators.