Ex-Boise chamber chief takes over at Idaho Aquarium

Nancy Vannorsdel wants to lift the ‘pall’ hanging over the troubled Boise nonprofit.

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comOctober 19, 2013 

Nancy Vannorsdel.JPG

Nancy Vannorsdel

  • IDAHO AQUARIUM

    Address: 64 N. Cole Road

    Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

    Admission: $9 adults; $6 children ages 3 to 11; $7 seniors age 55 and older; free for children ages 2 and younger.

“I have been here less than a week, but I have gone after it like a tiger,” said Nancy Vannorsdel. The former president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce has agreed to serve as interim director of the nonprofit Idaho Aquarium.

“I am here to help us get back to where we need to be: professional, ethical, adequately financed and goal-driven,” she said Friday. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us. We are going to do things the right way.

“I want to help them bring back this wonderful product and get it in shape to be one of the jewels of the Treasure Valley.”

Vannorsdel’s hire follows a string of legal and management problems at the aquarium, including a federal Florida jury’s indictment of former aquarium co-directors Ammon Covino and Chris Conk on charges of illegally transporting Florida marine life to Idaho. The duo pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in December.

Soon after their February arrest, allegations surfaced of mismanagement and poor animal care at the Boise aquarium, located at Cole and Franklin roads. Meanwhile, two for-profit aquariums that Covino and his brother, Vince, own in Portland and Austin have drawn their own criticism. The Portland facility is the subject of an Oregon Humane Society investigation; the Austin facility, slated to open in December, has run into several city permitting issues.

“You only lift that pall by doing it honestly, by making a clean slate,” Vannorsdel said. “I am not going to do this with smoke and mirrors.”

In the past, the aquarium had up to 10,000 visitors per month, Vannorsdel said. That has dropped to about 4,100. Vannorsdel wants to build that number back up. In order to do that, she needs to restore the public’s trust.

One of Vannorsdel’s first steps is assuring the public that Covino and Conk are no longer associated with the Boise aquarium.

“They are gone. They are gone by law and by the will of the board,” she said.

On the job less than a week, Vannorsdel has been calling on her friends and colleagues in the community to offer their expertise. She expects to announce three new board members soon, expanding the board by two.

Vannorsdel also has been meeting one-on-one with the aquarium’s 11 staff members. Some former employees stated they quit earlier this year because of conditions at the aquarium. Vannorsdel said that turnover has stopped.

In addition to meeting with staffers, she has been getting some hands-on time with the aquarium’s residents.

“This aquarium is wonderful. Petting the stingrays is like no experience I have had before,” she said.

Under previous management, Vannorsdel said, staffers felt some corners were being cut when it came to animal care. Once Conk and Covino left the aquarium, “staff started doing remediation to the tanks and making improvements to fish care that they have wanted to do for a long time,” she said. “The staff didn’t want to abandon the animals. I am so impressed with their commitment and knowledge.”

Both Covino and Conk, who founded the Boise aquarium in 2011, have defended their roles in the aquarium and say they put a lot of expertise and hard work into it. “It’s fair to say that it would not be there without me,” Covino told the Statesman last month.

Vannorsdel led the Boise chamber for 10 years, retiring in 2008. Prior to that she spent 30 years working in the banking industry, including serving as senior vice president of Wells Fargo Bank.

She replaces Amanda Davidson, who has resigned as interim aquarium director. Davidson also resigned from the board and has returned to her role of office administrator. The board is working on a plan to find a permanent director.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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