Putting a pricetag on my dream?
June 29, 2014 10:45 PM   Subscribe

I've had a fantasy that has been rolling around in my head for the past 15 plus years of opening a small public aquarium. It's always been the sort of things that I thought to myself "If I ever won the lottery one day." level of realism. Over the past year or so, I've been getting encouragement from friends to actually go for it. While I still thinks it's just daydream fodder, I sort of want to figure out a rough idea of cost to see just how crazy the idea is. The problem is, I have no idea how to figure that rough estimate of what it would cost.

Because it is day dream fodder, I don't know that I want to go as far as finding out an exact budget, but I'd love to have some high level estimate. Something that I could hold on to on the off chance I had a change in financial circumstances or even start to plan if it isn't as crazy as I think it will be. One caveat, I don't want to necessarily waste too much time getting a firm number, but I don't know where to begin even thinking about things like construction costs and building permits. Or all the things that I wouldn't think of that would go into making something like that come true.

This is, in all honestly, probably an exercise in futility and more just entertainment for myself. But I don't even know how to begin thinking about what it would take. How do people rough estimate ideas like this (or is it unrealistic to even try?) What kinds of things would I have to consider? How do people find out construction costs, and over head like electricity? Costs associated with employees? The whole ball of wax?

I have been been breeding seahorses for years, so I sort of have a a very small scale version in one room of the basement. One of my favorite books growing up was "How To Make A Miniature Zoo" published in 1957, which I'm sure was in no small part responsible for this very impractical daydream.

Ideally, I'd like to come up with some sort of estimate for the small roadside "zoo" and one for the even more impractical version that is everything I would want.

How would I even begin to think about it in a practical manner and start assigning dollar values? I have looked at craigslist for rental space just to get some idea of prices, but that even has it's problems, like location and shared building with noxious chemicals. Plus that doesn't really answer many of the other questions, like staffing, interior construction, decor, electrical upgrades, and probably many other resources I'm not thinking off. The only thing I really can do is figure the specific costs of building display aquariums.

Are there resources for figuring things like this out? Books? Certain subjects I should be looking up online? But I also don't want to get crazy detailed because it's frankly not very likely. I'm dead broke and unable to work at the moment. Which of course makes the daydream more attractive - since nothing is possible it seems like anything is possible.

Insight appreciated.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
OK. You got me at "seahorses" - they're my favorite since childhood, but I especially love our Long Beach Aquarium's Seahorse exhibit.

Maybe this is an LA thing, but I can think of quite a handful of small, local, and quirky museums. At least half of those are in people's homes open to the public.

You already can somewhat estimate tank costs.

Taking a behind the scenes tour of my current aquarium acquainted me with how that works on a larger scale.

You should do this!!

I don't see why this is a dream that can't come true.
posted by jbenben at 11:47 PM on June 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

I tend to think of public aquariums as having at least a few large custom built tanks. The Monster Fish Keepers forums have a lot of posts about DIY big tank construction (my personal favorite build here, although one this size would be totally oversized for seahorses).

The DIY Fishkeepers forum has decent posts on building smaller (sub-2000 gal) tanks.

Getting friendly with the owner of your LFS can give you info on electricity costs.
posted by jamaro at 11:58 PM on June 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The smart route would be to work at an aquarium similar to the one you want to start and close to the location you want to start one, learn the business, and then put a business plan together. You say you can not work, so that is presumably off the table. Next best thing would be to go to some of these places and take a tour as jbenben suggested. Ask them the questions you are asking us. They may not want to give up details of all of their their operation costs, but may share construction costs with you.

More easily, you could search for financial statements or audits of public institutes with aquariums. A quick search turned up several, however most were for larger aquariums in major cities with multimillion dollar budgets. You should be able to find smaller ones similar to the ones you are imagining where you could find rough operating costs.

You may want to associate with a marine institute (or small school with a marine biology department) or look into forming a non-profit organization. If the dream is to run an aquarium (for a paycheck) and not make/lose money from an aquarium, this would probably be the way to go. I am assuming a small aquarium would be a low profit margin undertaking at best and would run into cash flow issues in a place like Wisconsin where tourist traffic is down in winter months when expenses like heating are up. The tax breaks and donations/grants for non-profit would likely help you and you would be more likely to get free/cheap labor from students or volunteers.
posted by Yorrick at 12:17 AM on June 30, 2014

The turtle museum in Singapore is basically a turtle-mad collector who wrangled a deal to get a cheap or free rent in a small government building in a park and the running costs are covered by the door charge. There are two other museums at least here that started with people's collections at home. One is still in the home, the other eventually got funding for premises. Near my parents' house in a rural area was a petting zoo that was essentially a woman's pets gone out of control and an indulgent partner who turned it into a sortof neighbourhood farm/zoo to cover the cost of feed. It's more common than you'd think for people to do this on a small scale, and that tiny zoo was one of the nicest and most well-cared I've seen.

You should look for other quirky at-home museums and collections in your town/city and talk to the owners. But I bet you could get started in your own garage with big aquariums. Learn about curating as a trade, educating visitors and making it more than just a collection to look at.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:32 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to say why don't you look for some good business plan books, but it also looks like there are some really interesting books out there around small science/museum operations that might assist. For example there is the Handbook for Small Science Centers that has case studies, including 'from dream to reality' type stories.

But so you can ask the questions you really want to know, find some similar types of operations to your dream (but in different locations so you are not seen as a competitor) and see if you can find someone who is willing to share information. It is surprising how often people will say yes if you approach them and ask for some mentoring or advice, and if they say no, you haven't lost anything.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:13 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks everyone! I will look into some that are doing similar work. The turtle Museum in Singapore sounds like its a similar idea. I think maybe I was thinking to big in scope (because of course I'd LOVE to have a crazy budget, fly around the world to acquire and study rare species, and make it perfect. But maybe I just start with what I already have.).

I have been behind the scenes of a number of public aquariums and zoos and have friends that work in these institutes, but I'm kind of embarrassed to ask those questions. Most people in the field have biology degrees and many have masters and PHDs. I'm just an enthusiast.

I can't work right now, but I hope that changes, and so part of the idle time is spent coming up with crazy ideas like this.... For better or for worse..

The biggest problem I'm running into is figuring the cost of all the practical stuff (assuming I do this outside the home.) For the crazier idea of opening something larger. How do people figure out those projects? I assume people have a vague notion before they get into the specifics. I have no idea how to figure construction costs and operating costs. Would a business planning book health with that type of information?

(I will be getting the Handbook for Small Science Centers for sure).
posted by [insert clever name here] at 1:34 AM on June 30, 2014

What you need to do if this ever goes past the daydream stage is sit down and write up a business plan. Do a little research on these, but essentially you not only do the budget, but do projected growth, contingency plans, funding, startup and ongoing expenses, payroll, promotions, etc. Doing this will allow you to consider everything, even things you wouldn't have even known about (zoning, permits, utilities, etc.).

This can be fun and be part of your daydreaming process.

Once you have your business plan you can actually evaluate if it's feasible.

Also, don't underestimate the idea of a dream. I want to open a bookstore when I retire. I want to live above it and drink wine and smoke cigars. People tell me I should do this now. Those people are idiots. If I did this now what would I do when I retire? Books aren't selling. The costs of starting are too high, etc. My business plan say no. When I retire though I won't need the income (as much).

Another thing is this wouldn't have to be your sole source of income. You could lecture on fish, come to schools with specimens, etc.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:12 AM on June 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Miko has a lot of experience with museums, and I think she'd be happy to correspond. I recommend visiting aquariums, and talking to administrators. Most will be non-profit, so they probably have pretty public finances, and would probably be willing to meet with you. In Portland, Maine, there's a fun little Umbrella Cover Museum. It might be a model of a small non-profit you could emulate.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 AM on June 30, 2014

Estimates of cost to build and run a small city aquarium are here; Google can help you find more information about the Albany aquarium proposal if you’re interested in knowing more about it.
posted by metasarah at 8:40 AM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

When reading your description of what you wanted to do, it reminded me a lot of this place in Iceland. It was very much like someone's very big house converted into a Aquarium/Museum type attraction. After walking through it, I could totally imagine someone doing it w/o a big government grant or assistance.
posted by Brent Parker at 4:42 PM on June 30, 2014

I was kinda reminded a bit of of the Victoria Bug Zoo (which is swell). When I was there, the best way to see it was at certain times for a specific guided tour, which is probably a good way to structure a specific sea-horseish experience, for example.

If you want to experiment on a pretty low budget, then just set up your tanks at home with mood lighting and mellow mood music, invite a select group of friends for a special guided tour, and be the tour guide, and recite the unique characteristics of sea-horse-existence in a compelling narrative.
posted by ovvl at 7:00 PM on June 30, 2014

A friend of mine takes his seahorses around to the local schools and teaches kids about them. That might be a good way for you to gain an audience too.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:50 AM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi, fellow marine enthusiast here (I've got multiple tanks and the only reason I don't have seahorses is because you can't really keep them with coral or other fish, so I'm jealous of you!).

Just a few basic questions, there will be many many more no doubt. Do you plan on keeping coral, as you know that requires a whole chemical and mechanical infrastructure above and beyond fish. Coral are very expensive and tricky to keep alive, will you buy them wholesale? Will your aquarium be based with direct access to the ocean so you have continual fresh saltwater or will you be required to ship it in/mix it up?

I admire your enthusiasm! Given the effort and extreme expense it takes to maintain my weeny 5ft tank, personally the thought of the sheer scale and cost of running of a public aquarium has my mind boggling a bit but I'd love to know how it goes! One place you could possibly ask more questions (and to be quite honest with access you already have to public aquariums, that would be my first port of call) it certainly wouldn't hurt to ask other fellow enthusiasts. I spend time on the Australian marine forum, MASA (Marine Aquarium Society of Australia) and it might not be directly relevant to where you live but they could certainly offer opinions and feedback.

There are many large scale tank builders and installers who install aquariums for casinos, hotels etc. They would be a great place to start to get an idea about how much infrastructure would cost. My own tank maintenance guy (he does my water refills) sets them up for offices but this would be a smaller scale than what you're referring to. I would start with getting a solid detailed idea on paper about exactly what you imagine this would entail (how many tanks, what livestock they would hold, where it would be located etc and take it from there.
posted by Jubey at 5:22 AM on July 1, 2014

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