There’s a notable omission from Onondaga County’s science and education committee for the proposed $85 million aquarium: the Onondaga Nation. 

The aquarium would stand at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor, on Haudenosaunee ancestral lands.

The committee includes SUNY ESF, the Museum of Science and Technology, Onondaga Community College and others.

In her pitch to legislators last week, Deputy County Executive Mary Beth Primo told legislators the Nation had been invited to participate. 

But a lawyer for the Nation said leaders never received a message.

The county sent an email on July 25 — 10 days after creating the committee — to an old email address no longer used by an Onondaga Nation representative.

“No one at the Nation supports this,” said Joe Heath, the Nation’s legal counsel. “Doesn’t the date show the shallowness of the gesture?”

County spokesman Justin Sayles said County Executive Ryan McMahon’s administration has used the email in the past and wanted to include the Nation. 

The hiccup in communication about the committee shows a rushed approach and lack of inclusion, critics of the aquarium said. One committee member questioned whether the group would really have much say in the project. Yet others are hopeful the committee will steer the project in a positive direction.

The committee will meet today at 10 a.m., three hours before the aquarium project is up for a vote by the Onondaga County Legislature. The proposal is expected to pass, mostly along party lines. McMahon is a Republican.

Legislator Charles Garland, a Democrat, committed his vote to the aquarium in exchange for the promise of housing in the South Side and money toward lead abatement. 

Lauren Kochian, the president of the Museum of Science and Technology, a committee member said her contact with the county executive’s office began several months ago. She hopes to collaborate with the aquarium’s management to create curriculum and programming. 

The museum works with  other organizations who are on the science and education committee, including the Onondaga County Department of Water and Environment Protection and SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry. The MOST recently hosted a class of 9th graders for a free summer camp with the help of SUNY ESF. 

ESF president and former County Executive Joanie Mahoney said the formation of the committee was evidence McMahon is listening to concerns about the proposal. 

“My expectation is that the county has been talking to these other groups for months,” Kochian said of the committee. 

A Freshwater Option

Ed Michalenko has a different vision for the aquarium, one that primarily highlights the local ecosystem.

Michalenko, a Democrat, is the president of the Onondaga Environmental Institute and the DeWitt Town Supervisor. The institute has been involved in the cleanup of Onondaga Lake since 1990. 

Michalenko didn’t talk to the county executive’s office until June, when he reached out to the administration. He’d long been pursuing a science center on the lake and pitched the county on the proposal.

Michalenko modeled his proposal after the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. The center focuses on interdisciplinary research and has only freshwater exhibits. Much of the Leahy Center’s funding comes through gifts and grants. 

Not long after, the county announced the committee’s creation with a press release. 

While he pitched the county executive’s office on the idea, he said he now feels it’s too late to be heard. Michalenko is unsure of the true goal of the committee and whether it’ll have any power. The county scheduled the first meeting without consideration for his schedule — Michalenko will be out of town. 

Democrats, including Garland, believe his proposal offers a chance for compromise. Garland said he hopes Michalenko’s proposal helps reduce the money needed to fund the proposed aquarium. 

“Maybe it’s window dressing,” Garland said of the committee. “I’d hate to think it’s window dressing.” 

“I feel like I’m being used to garner votes,” Michalenko said.

McMahon has already committed to including some of the proposals or said he planned to include aspects of the proposals all along.

He said Friday the aquarium will have freshwater exhibits alongside saltwater exhibits. The saltwater exhibits draw more attendees and have to be included, he said. 

At the same press conference, he said the museum would find a way to tell the story of the lake’s cleanup and the Haudenosaunee’s history on the land. 

The Democrats don’t believe those aspects were destined to end up in the aquarium however. They said without Michalenko or others loudly objecting to their exclusion, they would have remained excluded. 

“This whole notion that they’re all in on education is a result of people stepping up,” said Legislator Chris Ryan, a Democrat. 

The committee will get some say in what goes in the aquarium, McMahon said. It will interact directly with the design firm that is selected to design the aquarium. 

But McMahon also acknowledged some flaws in his approach.

“A lot of the questions people have had related to this,” McMahon said, “maybe during the process we didn’t answer them well enough.”

Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.