In the early 1980s, Newport's economy took a dramatic downturn when both the timber and commercial fishing industries fell upon hard times. It was clear then that the community needed a broader economic base to insulate it from single-industry economic ups and downs. A blue-ribbon panel of community leaders from the public and private sectors convened to brainstorm ways to stimulate the economy in the Yaquina Bay area.
The group was intent on encouraging growth that would allow the community to retain its unique qualities: accessibility to our marine and coastal resources, appeal to a broad range of national and international visitors of all ages, and commitment to quality attractions that benefit the citizens of Newport as well as the six million tourists who visit our coast each year. A first-class Aquarium and interpretive center that would celebrate and showcase Oregon's coastal resources was an excellent fit. The Aquarium project continues to enjoy broad and enthusiastic community support. It became separately incorporated in October 1984.
The Aquarium's founders included representatives of Newport's commercial, municipal, financial and private sectors. This broad-based group—now incorporated as the Yaquina Bay Economic Foundation—was ideally suited to creating a facility serving both a growing tourist market and the year-round, resident population. But it realized it was not so suited to effectively bring such an ambitious project before the attention of the entire state of Oregon. So the Aquarium's current board of directors is comprised of a solid core of community leaders, plus leaders known in the public and private sectors throughout the state.
The Oregon Coast Aquarium became incorporated as a (501)(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization in 1984. With master plan and feasibility study in hand, the Aquarium began fundraising in earnest in 1987. Over $11.5 million was raised from a broad partnership of public and private agencies, corporations, foundations and individuals. An additional $14 million was financed through tax-free bond anticipation notes issued by the State Treasurer and the Oregon Health, Housing, Educational and Cultural Facilities Authority and underwritten by United States National Bank of Oregon.
To ensure that the technical and biological details of the Aquarium were planned as well as possible, nationally respected experts were included as planners in the project since the beginning. These included the project architect and design team leader SRG Partnership, P.C. (Portland), exhibit designer BIOS, Inc. (Seattle), aquarium designer Fulton Gale Architects (Seattle), landscape architects Walker & Macy (Portland) and ENARTEC life support systems (San Diego). Additional consultation was provided by Leighton Taylor & Associates, led by Dr. Leighton Taylor, former director of the Waikiki Aquarium in Honolulu, Hawaii, now a nationally recognized aquarium management consultant.
Mountain States Construction Co. of Sunnyside, Washington was awarded the general contracts for Phase One of the project through a public competitive bidding process. Mountain States Construction Co. also built the open ocean facility where Keiko the killer whale resided for over 2½ years while being rehabilitated at the Aquarium. The firm ENARTEC designed and engineered it.
The Aquarium's grand opening on May 23, 1992 was heralded by news organizations throughout the state as a landmark event. Nine months later, the facility had already hosted its first million visitors—eight months sooner than projected. Within four years, the Aquarium had become the second most popular attraction in the state and was rated by Parade magazine as one of the top 10 aquariums in the country. With Keiko the killer whale's internationally broadcast arrival at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in January 1996, the facility became known around the world.
Mountain States Construction Co. has retrofitted Keiko’s former home into an undersea ocean environment. The new Passages of the Deep exhibit opened to the public on May 27, 2000 and was the most successful grand opening in the Aquarium’s history, with over 18,000 visitors during the three-day holiday.
In all, over five million visitors have visited the Oregon Coast Aquarium since opening in 1992.