Boise & Garden City

Having overcome woes, Boise aquarium faces possible eviction over roof repairs

Aquarium of Boise’s “touch tank” holds bat rays and sting rays.
Aquarium of Boise’s “touch tank” holds bat rays and sting rays. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Boise’s only aquarium has had to deal with problem after problem since opening in 2010.

A federal judge in Florida in December 2013 sent Idaho Aquarium co-founders Ammon Covino and Chris Conk to prison for conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks from Florida to Boise.

Poor management and lack of board oversight led to incomplete record keeping, deceptive solicitations for charitable donations and excessive compensation for Covino and Conk, according to an investigation by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

These woes led a new nonprofit to take over in October 2013, bringing a new name, board of directors and business plan to the aquarium. The board hired Nancy Vannorsdel, a former banking executive and former CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, to run it.

The Aquarium of Boise worked hard to right past wrongs by remodeling; adding more exhibits, a classroom and education programs; paying off debt; and increasing attendance, which had dwindled after Covino’s and Conk’s indictments.

But now the aquarium faces two new problems: a water-damaged roof and eviction.

‘This damage is real’

Kathie Levison, of Ketchum, owns the 40,800-square-foot building at the northeast corner of Cole and Franklin roads that houses the aquarium, which leases 12,350 square feet. The structure was built in 1976 and has concrete walls and a flat wooden roof. Other tenants include Aladdin Bail Bonds and Mountain West Gymnastics.

Of the aquarium’s $800,000 annual budget, most of which comes from admission fees and membership dues, about $75,000 goes toward the lease. The aquarium reported 127,000 visitors in the past year.

On Nov. 15, Levison sued in 4th District Court asking that a judge declare the aquarium in default on its lease and evict it from her building because, in part, the aquarium would not accept responsibility for repairing the roof, which poses a public safety hazard.

Levison told the court that repair bids range from $293,973 to $357,829.

Aquarium Director Joni Sullivan, who took over for Vannorsdel in December 2014, told the Idaho Statesman that she was surprised Levison sued. Sullivan said she thought the two sides had agreed on a plan to repair the roof. She also said the aquarium intended to pay for it — it has opened an insurance claim — though how much and when had not been worked out.

Levison and her Boise attorney, Thomas Dvorak, declined to comment.

According to the complaint:

The problem started a few months ago when a structural engineer Levison hired to inspect the roof found that “moisture has caused significant damage,” making the roof unsafe.

The roof over the aquarium is soft and spongy because of water damage, the structural engineer told Levison. Areas of the roof over the building’s other tenants are not similarly damaged.

The aquarium contains tanks holding more than 35,000 gallons of water, many of which contain saltwater and many of which are are not fully enclosed and are open to the ceiling. The damage was likely caused by the aquarium’s high humidity.

“This damage is real and needs to be remediated as soon as possible,” the engineer told Levison.

Levison sent a letter Aug. 18 to the aquarium informing it of its obligation under the lease to pay for the repair. The aquarium acknowledged the letter but did not confirm it would pay. Levison sent a second letter Sept. 16 reminding the aquarium of its obligation.

A third letter Levison sent Sept. 30 demanded that the aquarium within 10 days acknowledge its responsibility, provide proof of financial ability to pay for the repairs, and assure the safety of the animals, visitors and employees until the roof is repaired.

The aquarium responded via letter Oct. 11 stating that it is not in default.

“Our clients have serious issues to work out,” attorney Vaughn Fisher wrote. “They need to cooperate in establishing a roof replacement plan and developing a long-term humidity mitigation scheme.

“If we were unable to accomplish these goals, then my client will put its full energy into accelerating its movement to a new location, instead of putting its resources into repelling the endless stream of lawyer letters,” Fisher wrote. “… This community-run nonprofit is committed to replacing the roof, preventing the same deterioration in the future and moving from the building as soon as a new location is finalized.”

The aquarium was already planning to move, just not so soon, Sullivan said. The aquarium wants to renew its lease for five years and begin looking for a new location, she said.

Replacing the roof over the aquarium — home to sharks, stingrays, various fish and marine creatures, and reptiles and birds — is complicated and must be done in phases over several months to protect the creatures and people inside.

Sullivan said aquarium officials and Levison’s lawyer met with the city’s building inspection manager, Bob Archibald, in mid-November. Archibald told the Statesman that aquarium officials agreed that until the roof is repaired, the aquarium will close for winds 50 mph or greater, rainfall exceeding one-quarter of an inch or snowfall greater than 1 inch. If the roof’s condition worsens, the city could close the aquarium.

The aquarium also said in its Oct. 11 letter that it is exercising its option to extend by five years the lease, which is up in May.

Levison says the aquarium is in default on its lease for not fixing the roof and therefore cannot exercise its right to extend the lease.

Another complication

Covino and Conk signed the lease with Levison in August 2011. Covino and his brother, Peter Covino III, also signed a $50,000 “guaranty of lease,” meaning they are personally responsible for it.

The aquarium and the Covinos amended the lease in September 2012 to add 4,350 square feet. With this change, their guarantee increased to $75,000.

Six months later, Ammon Covino and Conk were indicted by a Florida grand jury. At sentencing, they were ordered not to have any dealings with the Boise aquarium and were removed from its board. The new nonprofit assumed the debts and the assets, and took over making the monthly lease payments.

When problems started with the roof, the aquarium discovered another problem: No one had changed the lease. It still says that Idaho Aquarium is the tenant and that Ammon and Peter Covino are the guarantors.

Levison never approved the sublease to Aquarium of Boise, nor did she agree to release Idaho Aquarium or its guarantors from their obligations. Levison is also suing Ammon and Peter Covino.

Ammon Covino was not available for comment; he was in custody in Florida awaiting a Wednesday hearing to revoke his supervised release.

Peter Covino said he has not been served with the lawsuit. “However, I have now read through it,” he told the Statesman. “I feel that I am not liable for any financial obligation. I never have had any ties to the original Idaho Aquarium or the current Aquarium of Boise. I have never had to provide financial support to either entity with respect to a personal guarantor on the lease. I am hopeful that the landlord and the Aquarium of Boise will work together to resolve the dispute.”

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

New Covino aquarium venture

Vince Covino, brother of Ammon and Peter, opened aquariums in San Antonio and Austin, Texas. He also owned an aquarium in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, Ore., which he closed in February when the property owner sold the building.

“I divested of my Texas aquariums ownership earlier this year,” Vince Covino told the Statesman. “Those aquariums are now owned by Crysty Covino and a group of investors.”

Crysty Covino is Ammon’s wife.

About a year ago, Vince Covino, who lives in Boise, formed a new company, SeaQuest Interactive, with Brad Boyle, of Bountiful, Utah, and Shane Shimada, of Las Vegas. SeaQuest opened an aquarium on Nov. 23 in Layton, Utah. It plans to open one Dec. 2 in Las Vegas and one in Fort Worth, Texas, next year.

Vince Covino said he would consider opening a SeaQuest aquarium in the Boise area “if the right location opened up.”

“I am not actively looking for Boise locations,” he said. “It really isn’t a great market for an aquarium as far as demographics. Simply not enough people. But if a great Downtown location opened up and the city or a landlord were inclined to partner on a deal, we’d look closely at it. It’s really not very likely, to be candid.”

Cynthia Sewell

Ammon Covino violates a court order twice

After Ammon Covino pleaded guilty in Florida to conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Boise, U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in December 2013 sentenced him to 12 months and one day in federal prison, followed by two years of supervised release.

Here’s what has happened since:

Aug. 22, 2014: Covino gets out of prison and is placed on supervised release. The court bars him from any activity during his supervised release that involves the possession, display, transportation, exhibition, purchase or sale of fish and wildlife.

September 2014: Covino asks a judge if he can work as a “construction consultant” for an aquarium his brother, Vince, is opening in San Antonio. He also asks for permission to open a “bounce house” for children adjacent to the aquarium. Covino later withdraws the request.

Oct. 20, 2015: Covino is arrested in Texas for violating a condition of his release and for failing to “answer truthfully all inquiries by his probation officer.” Court records do not indicate which release condition Covino violated.

Feb. 22, 2016: Judge Martinez revokes Covino’s release, sentences him to 30 days in jail and orders him to pay $50,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

April 2: Covino is released from jail and goes back on supervised release.

Sept. 22: Martinez issues an arrest warrant for Covino for “failing to abstain from engaging in activity that involves exhibiting, importing, transporting, selling, receiving, acquiring or purchasing ... fish or wildlife.” Covino has been involved in the “preparation of the opening of two SeaQuest Aquariums located in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Layton, Utah,” according to court documents.

Sept. 27: Authorities arrest Covino in West Texas and send him to Florida.

Nov. 30: Covino will face a probation revocation hearing.

Cynthia Sewell: 208-377-6428, @CynthiaSewell

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