This year has been a tumultuous one for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. But Jason Patlis, who began his tenure as its president and CEO this month, says he is determined to not only bring stability to the organization, but also to significantly grow its presence in the city and its outreach to an expanding target, geographically and demographically.
“Pretty much everything appealed to me” about the aquarium, Patlis, who officially began Nov. 4, said about the opportunity. Growing the facility’s educational and conservation programs are among his top priorities, he said. “We want our visitors to come in as excited guests and leave as conservation stewards.”
Patlis’ first short-term priority, however, is overseeing the ambitious construction projects that are finally getting underway about 18 months after they were first announced. Groundbreaking took place on Nov. 18 as a way of promoting the official launch of its Maritime Aquarium Functional Replacement Project. That will include the demolition of its longstanding IMAX theater in favor of a 4D theater, and a new home for its harbor seals – at 150,000 gallons, about eight times larger than the pinnipeds’ current domicile.
The 4D theater will mainly show mission-based films about the ocean, wildlife and other aspects of nature, with seats moving at appropriate moments. The new theater will also be conducive to lectures and other nonmovie events, he said.
Patlis said that the aquarium expects to be showing IMAX movies for another 13 months, including its daily schedule of documentaries and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” due to open in July.
There is also the long-awaited replacement of the Walk Bridge, the nearby 123-year-old structure that carries rail traffic on Metro-North’s New Haven Line as well as Amtrak service across the Norwalk River. Following several delays, that project – which will cost an estimated $511 million as part of an overall $1.2 billion package that includes several other transportation-related initiatives – is expected to begin next summer and take four to five years to complete.
It also necessitated the removal of the IMAX and was the subject of a power struggle between the city of Norwalk and the aquarium over who would control it. Ultimately, the city took over the project, with its Common Council approving the new agreement on Feb. 13 — two days after Maritime Aquarium President and CEO Maureen Hanley was “relieved” of her duties by its board of trustees, roughly three months after her hiring.
Patlis takes a politic approach when discussing such matters, saying that he expects the aquarium to continue to be “a good partner with the city and the state as we embark on our construction.” The aquarium-specific work is capped at $40 million, and does not include several items originally on its agenda, including a new entrance and a dedicated space for a meerkat exhibit.
But Patlis disagreed with the characterization of those projects as having “gone by the wayside.” They, along with a “more comfortable” space for its sea otters, will instead be funded by donations.
“There are a number of exhibits we’d like to expand and renovate,” he said, noting that a feasibility study and funding plan would be worked out over the coming months.
While Patlis’ diplomacy may come as no surprise, given that he is leading a nonprofit 501(c)(3), it is also doubtless informed by his background. His 27-year career of executive management and public policy in ocean and natural-resource conservation on a national and international scale includes most recently the executive directorship of Marine Conservation Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society, as well as stints as the president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and as vice president and managing director of U.S. government relations for the World Wildlife Fund.
He also served as majority counsel on the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee under Sen. John Chafee (1997-2000) and as deputy staff director for the U.S. House Science Committee (2006-07).
The aquarium will continue seeking to enlarge its conservational efforts in the Long Island Sound, he said. He also expects to grow its efforts in providing STEM education to students and STEM training and support to teachers.
The facility currently hosts about 70,000 children and teens a year; its total annual attendance is about 500,000, making it the second-largest family attraction in the state, after the Mystic Aquarium.
Patlis said the Norwalk operation would continue to focus its efforts on the city and Fairfield County, but will also seek to draw more visitors from outside the immediate area.
The New York native also said he has been pleasantly surprised by the relative ease of his commute from New Rochelle to Norwalk. “I used to cycle to the Bronx Zoo (where the Wildlife Conservation Society is headquartered), which is about 11 miles,” he said. “This is about 25 miles, but it’s taking me about the same time to travel to work.
“More miles, less traffic,” he laughed, “though I’m not cycling here.”