by Terry Rogers
On Monday, June 8, Milford City Council voted unanimously to deny a request from Milford Aquarium Inc. to pay $23,000 for a business plan created by an independent contractor. The request was based on a contract between the City of Milford and the Milford Aquarium signed in 2014.
On March 23, 2014, the Economic Development Committee, led by then-Councilman Garrett Grier presented a request from Bill Pilecki, leader of the Milford Aquarium organization, for $46,000 for a comprehensive business plan for the concept. The initial cost for a business plan was $9,000, but the group wanted one created by a company whose sole expertise was in aquariums. They chose a company called ConsultEcon. The Economic Development Committee came to a compromise offering $23,000 from the City with the organization required to raise the other half of the cost of the business plan. The late Councilman Skip Pikus emphasized that the group would have to raise the $23,000 in two years.
Former Mayor Bryan Shupe and former Councilman Dirk Gleysteen expressed concerns about the return on investment based on such a business plan. At the meeting, Pilecki explained that the business plan would allow them to proceed with the next level of fundraising and that a rate of return was not part of the discussion at that time. The business plan was only to show that an aquarium was viable in Milford.
The funding for the aquarium was discussed again on December 14, 2015 when Milford Aquarium Inc. reported that they had raised the required $23,000. There was a question regarding who the City should pay their portion of the cost of the business plan to, with a decision made to pay the contractor directly once the plan was presented to Council. An agreement was signed between Milford Aquarium Inc. and the City on April 11, 2016.
“We received correspondence giving us first right of refusal to purchase the plan for the aquarium,” Mark Whitfield, City Manager, said. “It would be at the purchase price of $23,000. It is my recommendation that we not pursue this but it is ultimately Council’s decision.”
“This is very confusing,” David Rutt, City Solicitor, said. “My understanding was that they were going to have a consultant. The consultant was to prepare a report and submit invoices. Upon full payment, the consultant was to give progress reports to the City. I don’t know that the reports ever happened. Then, in paragraph seven, the contract states that if the aquarium group disbands, they can offer to sell the plan to the City for $23,000 and if the City says no, they can offer to sell it to someone else who can put up an aquarium. The city is not at all obligated to purchase this plan.”
Councilman Todd Culotta asked what the City would gain by purchasing the plan. Mayor Archie Campbell said he didn’t think it would give them any return on the investment.
“The estimate for the operating costs of this aquarium were like $4 million a year,” Mayor Campbell said. “You have to cover salaries for scientists, marine biologists. And then, I was told the land they were given was behind land owned by someone else. That would mean the people who owned the land in the front of the aquarium could actually charge an additional entrance fee to let people walk up to the entrance. It just was not a sound plan.”
The denial by Council means that Milford Aquarium Inc. may now solicit outside companies to take over the construction of the aquarium.