Fishy Business

Already strapped state taxpayers are being asked to help foot the bill for a $100 million giant aquarium in New Bedford, where the project — which has been all but unnoticed elsewhere — is attracting trouble the way chum draws sharks.

A businessman has sued two key players in the Oceanarium plan — including a former city official — claiming they duped him out of buying a potentially valuable property next door only to nab it themselves. A talk-show host lost his job after criticizing the project. Only a fraction of the money needed has been raised, even after nine years. There has been little scrutiny from the local newspaper, whose publisher sits on the aquarium's board. On top of all this looms the question of why a new aquarium is going up in New Bedford at all given that nearby Boston and Mystic, Connecticut, each already have one.

“There's only so much you can do with fish,” says Peter Barney, chairman of the New Bedford Board of Assessors. “Mystic is where the Rhode Island people will go. The public money isn't there, and they've already exhausted potential private funding. We've got to wonder if this project is the best use for the site.”

Yet groundbreaking is set for this summer. This despite a lawsuit brought by Providence resident Peter Iacobucci, who claims that Oceanarium developer Bill Whelan and his partner, ex-city solicitor George Leontire, deceived him about the availability of a historic building beside the Oceanarium whose value stands to soar once the aquarium opens. When Iacobucci's negotiations to buy it stalled, Whelan bought the building himself. Iacobucci's complaint, delayed by a dispute over which court has jurisdiction, says Whelan and Leontire used their influence to obstruct his purchase.

You won't read much about any of this in the New Bedford Standard-Times, whose publisher, Bill Kennedy, sits on the Oceanarium's board of governors. “The paper's a cheerleader for the Oceanarium,” longtime resident and aquarium critic Leo Allen says. “The men in charge don't have to answer to anyone because the project has the unconditional support of the Standard-Times.

Hogwash, responds editor Ken Hartnett. “This is an open newspaper,” he says. “It always has been and it always will be.”

In fact, the greatest scrutiny of the project came on local radio. But even that was short-lived. WBSM-AM talk-show host Pat Desmarais, who questioned the aquarium on the air, says he was fired for it.

“It was irresponsible of Whelan and Leontire to pull public money into the mix and refuse to show support that the project would succeed,” Desmarais says. “Things looked funny, but I wasn't allowed to ask questions.”

The station's management did not respond to requests for comment; one report has said the station wanted to reorganize. Whelan says Desmarais “was a good host, but was always looking for a negative side. He aggravated the wrong people.”

Whelan insists the Oceanarium will give New Bedford, which has the highest rate of unemployment in the state, “its own economic engine, plus 2,000 jobs.” Leontire says a retail boom is sure to follow.

But Debra Fassnacht of Chicago's Shedd Aquarium says aquariums alone don't drive a community's economy. “You must have strong tourism and nearby attractions,” she says. “We also get help from the tax base.”

Without a local tax hike, securing all $100 million for the project could prove challenging. Only $5 million of the $70 million in private funds needed has been secured. Of the $30 million in state and federal taxpayer money expected, just $3 million has been paid out. Leontire says he has commitments for $86 million — both private and public.

One reason money has been slow to trickle in might be skepticism that the aquarium will draw the promised 850,000 people a year. (The New England Aquarium gets 1.3 million visitors a year and has had trouble sustaining attendance; Denver's aquarium filed for bankruptcy in April.)

Chief operating officer Bob Ciolek admits that, with only $8 million in hand, he has no marketing strategy. “There's a time and a place for marketing, and that's not now,” Ciolek says.

However, one expert's report provided to Boston Magazine touches on how the New Bedford Oceanarium hopes to succeed: It lists the attraction's primary audience as “all of Rhode Island.” Its secondary audience? The report lists Suffolk County — home, of course, to the New England Aquarium.