Onondaga County legislators today approved an $85 million aquarium proposed by County Executive Ryan McMahon.

The vote passed, 9-8, with the deciding vote coming from 16th District Legislator Charles Garland, a Democrat who represents parts of Syracuse’s south and southwest sides.

“This is a tourism year-round asset we can sell,” McMahon said at a press conference after the vote. “We do not have many year-round assets right now related to tourism within our county. We will.”

The county is now about 18 months away from getting the aquarium legislators voted on Tuesday.

McMahon first proposed the aquarium in October. The county will pay for the project with money from a $200 million surplus amassed during the Covid-19 pandemic and from federal stimulus funds. McMahon has said the project will jumpstart development at the Inner Harbor and help the tourism industry.

A study paid for by the county estimates the aquarium could generate about 500,000 visitors, $800,000 in revenue and about $52 million in economic activity.

The proposal had largely languished between October and June. However, Garland met with McMahon several times since the middle of June to negotiate a package for his vote that includes initiatives for housing, the city school district and lead abatement.

Last week, Garland held a press conference with McMahon and committed to voting for the aquarium, breaking with the other Democrats. McMahon has signaled since then he thought he had the votes to pass the proposal.

Three other Republican legislators — Tim Burtis, Brian May and Ken Bush — voted against the aquarium, tightening the margin.

Much of the pushback from the last nine months resurfaced Tuesday: Legislators were concerned about the cost to taxpayers, the ability for the aquarium to draw attendees and whether the money could be better spent.

“This business model takes far too much money out of the pockets of the taxpayer,” Democratic Minority Leader Chris Ryan said Tuesday. “Find a better funding source, find a better way to pay for it, find a better revenue model. Then you’ll have my vote.”

Legislators passed the aquarium after a nearly two-hour meeting that included 30 minutes of speeches from Onondaga County residents.

Even the public comment period became a point of contention Tuesday. Residents had lined up and packed the legislature’s chambers in hopes of getting their chance to sway legislators.

But Chairman Jim Rowley, a Republican who ultimately voted for the aquarium, invoked a rule limiting public comment to 30 minutes.

“I personally don’t see the value in sitting here for hours,” Rowley said.

Ryan presented a motion to overturn Rowley’s decision, but the vote failed in an 11-6 party line vote.

In the gallery of the legislature chambers, attendees held up neon signs that read:

  • “Votes are not for sale”
  • “Invest in our community”
  • “No quid pro quo”
  • “No aquarium”

Several speakers made direct pleas to Garland to change his vote.

Many residents who spoke felt shut out of the process to evaluate the aquarium. One, Albert Tubbert, said he had to take off from work to attend Tuesday’s vote. A Black man, identified by Rowley as E. Bell, spoke right after Tubbert.

“You never include people of color,” said Bell. “I’m invisible to you.”

Bell said Black residents who oppose the aquarium would not have been able to show up to the vote because they’re working at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. He also said that while Garland may have made a deal for housing, that should have been higher on the county’s agenda than an aquarium.

“You look in my eyes and tell me that children, the mothers and fathers that’s fixing your cars, watching your kids, tending to your needs and neglect them in their time of need with this whole bunch of money in your hand?” Bell said. “You people are almost laughable to even be legislators.”

All but one spoke against the aquarium.

Four Democratic legislators also spoke against the aquarium. Democrat Mary Kuhn read a statement into the record from the Conservative Party in opposition to the aquarium.

When Garland spoke to explain his rationale, he turned around and faced residents.

“Please, don’t ever think it’s just about 10 houses,” Garland said. “Because anyone that truly knows me knows where my heart is and what I’m fighting for.”

After the vote, on the 14th floor of the Civic Center, McMahon touted much of what he’s already pitched. The project will drive economic development, tourism and revenue, he said.

McMahon said the county already had private investors already reach out about becoming involved with the aquarium.

The county executive likened the opposition the project faced to a political campaign.

He echoed a sentiment from his Friday press conference with Garland that there may have been hiccups in his approach to getting the nine votes he needed for the aquarium.

Then McMahon said his team didn’t necessarily answer all the questions had well. On Tuesday, McMahon said he may have pushed too hard for a vote.

“I understand that some people don’t see the vision yet because they’re not privy to all the information I am, my team is on a daily basis,” McMahon said. “But I think overall everything I talked about at the beginning is going to happen.”

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Chris Libonati

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