After 28 years of success, the COVID-19 public health emergency has challenged the Tennessee Aquarium’s financial health.
Seven months after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Hamilton County, the global pandemic impacts are still rippling through the economy. The travel and hospitality sector was hit particularly hard, especially nonprofit aquariums and zoos that depend on admissions to cover fixed operational costs.
The aquarium’s temporary closure began March 13 and lasted for 96 days. From spring break until mid-June, the weekly operational costs of $400,000 continued without admissions revenue.
To stretch financial resources, the aquarium reduced the salaries of all directors, senior leaders and the CEO, permanently laid off 112 part-time employees, instituted a hiring and wage freeze, curtailed nonessential spending, refinanced existing debt and applied for and received a Payroll Protection Plan Loan.
Despite taking these steps, the scope of this crisis has outweighed the modest gains made since reopening, the aquarium says in a news release. Attendance is 50% lower than in 2019 and IMAX attendance is down 70%.
These losses are projected to leave the Chattanooga attraction with a deficit of more than $5 million by the end of 2020.
In a recent message sent to staff and volunteers, Tennessee Aquarium president and CEO Keith Sanford announced that the aquarium was eliminating 22 full-time positions as a measure to secure the organization’s long-term viability.
“Pivotal moments like this are tough,” Sanford wrote. “While I have compassion for each individual whose job has been eliminated, I also have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the aquarium has the financial footing to recover fully.
“By adjusting our operations now and working hard together over the coming months, we hope to be able to restore our financial stability sometime next year.”
In the memo, Sanford described the extensive financial analysis and deliberations that took place before finalizing the decision to reduce staff. He also thanked the staff members who were being released.
“We will miss the individuals who are losing their positions through no fault of their own,” he wrote. “I want to express my gratitude to everyone for your dedication to our mission.”
The Tennessee Aquarium currently has 136 full-time employees and 23 part-time employees.
Source: Tennessee Aquarium