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Tennessee Aquarium Implements Reduction in Force as Impacts from Pandemic Continue

Oct 22, 2020

Chattanooga, Tenn. (Oct. 22, 2020) – 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 upon admissions to cover fixed operational costs. After 28 years of success, the COVID-19 public health emergency has challenged the Aquarium’s financial health.

The Tennessee Aquarium’s temporary closure began on March 13 and lasted for 96 days. During the critically important time from spring break until mid-June, the weekly operational costs of $400,000 continued without admissions revenue.

The Aquarium took quick action to stretch financial resources, instituting the following measures in March and April:

  • Salaries of all directors, senior leaders, and CEO were reduced
  • 112 part-time employees were permanently laid off
  • A hiring/wage freeze was instituted
  • Non-essential spending was curtailed
  • Existing debt structure was refinanced
  • 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. Aquarium attendance is 50% lower than in 2019. Attendance at IMAX is down 70%. These losses are projected to leave the iconic Chattanooga attraction with a staggering deficit of more than $5 million by the end of 2020. Without additional operational changes, one devasting year could become several.

In a message sent to staff and volunteers today, Aquarium president and CEO Keith Sanford delivered the solemn news that 22 full-time positions were being eliminated as a measure to secure the organization’s long-term viability. “As a leader, pivotal moments like this are extremely tough,” Sanford said. “While I have compassion in my heart 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 for their dedication to the Aquarium’s mission.

“We will miss the individuals who are losing their positions through no fault of their own. And, as I pause with you to reflect, I want to express my gratitude to everyone for your dedication to the Aquarium’s mission.”

The Aquarium currently has 136 full-time employees and 23 part-time employees.

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