Activists and lawmakers split over next steps after $85m aquarium approved

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A crowd gathered at the back of the Onondaga County Legislature on August 2. Neon signs in hand, the group opposed an $85 million proposal to build an aquarium in Syracuse’s Inner Harbor next to Onondaga Lake. The proposal passed 9-8 in favor of funding the aquarium, with Democrats and Republicans ending up on either side of the vote.

Although the fight isn’t over until the shovels hit the ground, said Tara Sandlin, a member of the Syracuse Party for Socialism and Liberation and a senior at Syracuse University.

Many activists who have opposed the aquarium believe the $85 million prize could be better spent addressing Syracuse’s problems, such as its high rates of child poverty, housing instability and
lead pollution. But following the aquarium’s endorsement, those same activists are split on whether they can do anything about it.

State Senator Rachel May, like many other Democrats in the county, also opposes the aquarium. She called the legislature’s decision to approve spending on the aquarium “reckless.”

“So I understand Syracuse’s desire to have nice things,” May said, “(but) given that we’ve made headlines for having the worst child poverty in the nation and serious problems with the pipes in lead…I feel like there are some basic things we need to do first.

May thinks the aquarium isn’t a completely done deal.

“There is this decision by the legislature, but there still has to be a lot of detailed planning and a number of other decisions to be made,” May said. “You never know something is really going to happen until there are shovels in the ground.”

Image courtesy of QPK Design

Syracuse’s PSL has expressed opposition to the aquarium project. Days after the project ended, the organization began posting a graphic of members of the Onondaga County Legislative Assembly as clownfish across town and on social media.

“There are a lot of people who think, ‘well, it’s voted on, so it’s decided,’” Sandlin said. “The PSL strongly believes that as long as the ground has not been dug, it can still be stopped and these funds can be misappropriated.”

Onondaga Nation legal counsel Joe Heath told Central Currents there was no support for the aquarium project within the nation. Instead, the legislature should have used the aquarium money to lift people out of poverty, Heath told the Daily Orange.

Heath said he wasn’t sure what options the Onondaga Nation had left to fight the aquarium. The best option, Heath continued, would be to join with others within the county to make the legislature more responsive to their pleas. Heath wants the legislature to understand that she made a dramatic mistake.

“I don’t know of any other options at this point,” he said.

The Syracuse PSL will engage in a series of different ways to disrupt the process from moving the aquarium through the legislature to its possible construction.

State Senator Rachel May Quote

Megan Thompson | Director of Digital Design

The organization has already launched a petition to stop construction of the aquarium and invest its funding in social housing. As of 5:40 p.m. on August 21, the petition had 270 signatures.

“It is high time the people of Onondaga County were treated with the dignity they deserve! the opening statement of the petition ends.

Sandlin also said the group will hold rallies regarding the construction of the aquarium. The organization has already organized one following the approval of the project. On August 14, the Syracuse PSL stood in front of the county building, voicing their objections through a megaphone.

While May and Sandlin think the aquarium could eventually be shut down, the two disagree on how far to go to stop the project. Sandlin, with the Syracuse PSL, said the organization was prepared to travel to the future site of the aquarium to disrupt its construction.

May, however, said that once the aquarium is fully finalized, she doesn’t want to act as a hindrance to the project.

“If it’s going to go forward, I want it to succeed,” she said. “I don’t want to undermine it once it becomes a reality.”

In addition to taking public action, Sandlin said the Syracuse PSL will solicit sentiment about the aquarium. The organization will then present its findings publicly, possibly through video, Sandlin said.

“The main thing is to get the county’s attention,” Sandlin said. “They didn’t want to hear people’s comments before, so we’re doing our best to make sure they’re going to hear people’s comments now.”

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Contact Kyle: [email protected] | @Kyle_Chouinard

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