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Center will stay open Robert Moreno | Sat, Nov 02 2013 12:00 PM

The once endangered Living Coast Discovery Center received a temporary reprieve from extinction after securing the funds needed to remain open for at least one more year.

Corporations, foundations, local businesses and community members collectively donated $401,064 to the Living Coast Discovery Center. That was more than double the amount needed for the center to avoid closing its doors to the public Oct. 28, and permanently shutting down Dec. 15.

“We look forward to being here for the long haul,” said Chief Operating Officer Ben Vallejos during a Monday press conference. “And basically what this (money) allows us to do, it allows us to remain open to the end of 2014, at the very, very minimum. It gives us reserve funds to plan for 2015 and beyond.”

Vallejos said the money raised will go toward animal care and to rehire a director of redevelopment to lead fundraising efforts.

Vallejos said that board members in August adopted a new strategic  plan for the future.

He said the previous business model of making the center an attraction rather than an aquarium on the bay and a zoo didn’t work.

Vallejos added that the center can no longer survive just off of membership costs.

The new plan brings an educational component to the Living Coast Discovery Center to help qualify the center for grants

The new strategic plan focuses on three components: the Living Coast Experience, a center for STEAM Education — which expands programs for students to learn about science, technology, engineering, art and math through understanding of the natural environment — and a collaborative research component that includes working with the

Port of San Diego, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other scientific organizations.

Vallejos said these three components will help the center pursue additional grants.

Facing a $200,000 budget shortfall, Vallejos and his staff announced  Oct. 1 that the aquarium and zoo formerly known as the Chula Vista Nature Center would shut its doors for good if it could not raise the $200,000 needed to remain open.

From the day the potential closure was announced Vallejos and the staff at the Living Coast Discovery Center went into campaign mode seeking donations from the community.

Guest experience manager and marketing coordinator Sherry Lankston was determined to not let the Living Coast Discovery Center sink; she swam across several beaches in San Diego to raise  awareness and nearly $10,000.
A little girl cartwheeled her way to raising $160 to help the center stay alive.

A few elementary kids got together and sold lemonade at a lemonade stand to produce $616.37 for the nonprofit.

Members and volunteers of the center pledged cash donations of $50,000.

A 5-year-old girl generously forked out $3.03  just to “feed the turtles,” Vallejos said.

Restaurants such as Slater’s 50/50, Romesco and Sea Rocket Bistro all raised money.

But the big money came from two anonymous donors giving $75,000 each in recent days.

Although the center is to remain open, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox said the wildlife and refuge center still has a way to go before it can get back on its financial feet.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but it got a tremendous amount of support from donors and foundations,” she said.

The Living Coast Discovery Center was on life support once before and was close to pulling the plug in June 2009, when the city of Chula Vista decided to no longer fund more than $1 million for the then Nature Center.

Instead, the center formed into a 501(c)3 and has been operating since.

At one point, things got so economically bad that Vallejos was forced to cut his staff of 19 down to 11 equivalent full-time workers. Vallejos and others were also furloughed.

Ashley Boykin of Arroyo Vista Charter School in Eastlake was among the many school children and parents at the Oct. 28 celebration, where admission was free until noon.

Ashley had been to Living Coast once before.

The fourth-grader said she is happy that the place is not shutting down.

“It would mean that all the animals would stay here and they would still live here and everybody would get to experience them,” Ashley said.

Chula Vista resident and parent Alex Ramirez made his first trip out to the center Monday morning.

Ramirez said he too is glad that the center gets to stay around so that his daughter Mia and many other kids can enjoy what the Living Coast Discovery Center has to offer.

“I think it is great because it is educational for the kids to be able see the wildlife out here whether it is sea or on land; it is just a great exposure for kids who probably would’ve never had that exposure,” Ramirez said.

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