Grants totaling $10 million shine a light for Oregon Coast Aquarium

And in Lincoln City, a stretch of U.S. Highway 101 becomes a gallery for landscape paintings by For the Seventh Generation’s coastal watchers

Carrie Lewis was driving when she got news that the Oregon Coast Aquarium had been awarded a $5 million grant.

“Literally, I had to pull over,” said Lewis, president and CEO of the Newport aquarium. “It was such a surprise. It had been such a time of despair. I had tears in my eyes. It was just amazing.”

The unexpected gift from the Sisters-based Roundhouse Foundation was followed by the recent announcement that a previously canceled $5 million state grant was on again. Just like that, the aquarium was $10 million richer. The past decade of struggling was finally over.

Lewis knew the hard times all too well. She agreed to take over as director of the aquarium in 2010 when a crippling economic downturn threatened the existence of one of the coast’s most popular tourist destinations.  

“The first thing we had to do was furlough 10 percent of the workforce; we had a huge reduction in expenses. It took years to climb out of that mess,” Lewis said. “It seems every 10 years we go through some crisis. The sleepless nights, crying jags, fretting and worrying, it never leaves you. But we got through it.”

And they did so without ever asking the state for help — not even during the darkest days.

But, in 2018, they tried their luck.

“We met with 90 legislators,” she said. “Not one of them discounted us. Not one said a negative thing about the aquarium. They were so proud of the work we’ve done. We had so much support from every single legislator, it was humbling and shocking.”

An artist’s rendering shows the touch pool to be built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where visitors will be able to get friendly with tidepool denizens such as anemones and starfish.
An artist’s rendering shows the touch pool to be built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where visitors will be able to get friendly with tidepool denizens such as anemones and starfish. Courtesy: Oregon Coast Aquarium

And it resulted in a $5 million appropriation for the aquarium’s capital construction project, with construction set to begin in January 2020. Then came COVID.

For 10 months of 2020, the aquarium was shut down nearly as often as not. Sixty-five percent of the workforce was let go, keeping only those necessary to ensure the animals’ health. Everyone took a reduction in pay and benefits. And that eagerly awaited $5 million from the state? Rescinded.

But the aquarium “is like a phoenix,” Lewis said. “Last year was crushing. We were going along at such a good clip; staff morale was great. Then, all of a sudden, the world shuts down. But here we go with the light coming through. We really came through it, and we are doing so incredibly well because we have so much support from donors, members, the board of directors. People want us to be successful.”

The $10 million windfall will pay for long-overdue remodeling projects as well as building a new animal rehabilitation center.

Of the Roundhouse grant, $1 million will go toward building a new entrance and the first phase of the new Headwaters feature, with a new amphitheater and nature play area overlooking the estuary on Yaquina Bay. The other $4 million of the Roundhouse grant will be used for a new marine rehabilitation center.

The marine rehabilitation center to be built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium will include spaces for coastal animals of the air, sea, and land.
The marine rehabilitation center to be built at the Oregon Coast Aquarium will include spaces for coastal animals of the air, sea, and land. Artist’s rendering courtesy: Oregon Coast Aquarium

The aquarium is one of three facilities in the Pacific Northwest and the only one in Oregon — the others are in Seattle and Sausalito — authorized to provide critical care to endangered marine wildlife such as sea turtles, northern fur seals, and snowy plovers, Lewis said.

“This gift will not only enable us to realize our dreams, but it will have a tremendous impact on our treasured marine life and will leave a lasting legacy for Oregon,” Lewis said.

The Roundhouse grant provides about 70 percent of the funds necessary to build the center, which will not be open to the public.

The Roundhouse Foundation supports finding solutions to the challenges associated with rural culture and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, with a primary focus on arts and culture, environmental stewardship, and social services and education.

The $5 million grant from the state will be used to modify the aquarium’s three indoor galleries, including changes to improve visitor traffic flow, upgrade exhibits, provide new signs and interpretative materials, as well as a touch pool, live coral exhibit, and sea jelly gallery.

“We haven’t had any renovations or facelifts since we opened 30 years ago,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of like coming out of the abyss. We can renovate the aquarium. It’s just really great.”

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FOR FOUR DAYS beginning July 21, the Lincoln City Cultural Center will become an outdoor gallery of landscape paintings stretching nearly a third of a mile along U.S. Highway 101.  The “epicenter of a coastal conservation project,” the exhibit features a free-standing pano-mural made up of paintings, each measuring 2 by 4 feet, created by an estimated 400 artists. The paintings will be displayed from fencing on the cultural center lawn.

For the Seventh Generation: A Community of Coastal Watchers is a long-term project first envisioned two decades ago.  Its goal is to create a system of ocean observers, “so that any untoward action on the ocean or its accompanying landscape will not go unnoticed,” said John Teply, the project founder.

Painters in Californian, Oregon, and Washington are invited to choose a mile, revisit it and paint it each year.

“Every mile of California, Oregon, and Washington coastline to the Canadian border is represented,” Teply said. “Mile 1 is Tijuana. There are 1,320 artists when we have the full contingent.”

Seattle artist Brooke Borcherding’s painting of Copalis Beach in Washington is part of For the Seventh Generation’s pano-mural to be displayed in Lincoln City.
Seattle artist Brooke Borcherding’s painting of Copalis Beach in Washington is part of For the Seventh Generation’s pano-mural to be displayed in Lincoln City.

The paintings usually stretch a half-mile, but this year it will be closer to a third of a mile, he said. Visitors to the pano-mural can start their walk with a Tijuana scene, then pass by the Huntingdon Beach Pier, San Francisco Bay, Cascade Head, Haystack Rock, the Astoria-Megler Bridge, and Puget Sound, before ending their trek with a view of the Peace Arch on the Canadian border.

One hundred of the paintings were created this past year, Teply said. Others are 20 years old.

“It will be pretty spectacular,” he said. “Perhaps each of us has a favorite spot along the coast. Looking out over it, we may find ourselves asking, ‘Will it survive?’ The ocean is continually under threat. Pollution, coastal development, and over-fishing all tax the health of its finite system. Without strong environmental conscience and a voice to express it, threats to the ocean will be left unchallenged and its health subject to the whims and manipulations of politics and industry. This project, extending through the 21st century, provides such a voice.”

The outdoor exhibit, co-sponsored by the Elisabeth Jones Art Center and the Surfrider Foundation, came to Lincoln City after a chance encounter between the cultural center’s executive director, Niki Price, and Teply at an event in Portland. After hearing about the project, Price recalled, “I said, ‘That’s funny, we have 350 feet of Highway 101 frontage and we could be a great place for a show like that.’ Three years later, he’s finally coming here.”

There is no charge to visit the pano-mural, which will be open to the public 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 21-23 and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 24.

Other events to held in conjunction with the exhibit include a poetry reading, film festival, and picnic. Interviews with artists who created pieces in the pano-mural can be seen on For the Seventh Generation’s YouTube channel.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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