BAR HARBOR — The Mount Desert Oceanarium, a once-popular aquarium with a lobster fishing exhibit, touch tank and ecological marsh walk located off State Highway 3, has found a buyer who promises to return it to its former glory.
Founded by Audrey and the late Rev. David Mills, the oceanarium was recently sold to Dick Post of Lexington, Mass. “The kids just love it…You can’t let a place like that die, make it into condominiums, that would be horrible,” said Post.
“The Mills put their heart and soul into this property for years and years,” said Jamie O’Keefe, a real estate broker with the Knowles Company who assisted in the sale.
After moving to Southwest Harbor in 1972, the Mills started the Mount Desert Oceanarium, and, at first, used a portion of the property for their home. Eventually, the oceanarium became a separate entity when the couple moved the aquarium to Bar Harbor. The aquatic museum was soon up for sale when it closed in 2019.
For years, Post said he enjoyed bringing his family to the oceanarium. After noticing the property was on the market, he didn’t hesitate to investigate.
“When we were up last summer, I was driving and saw the ‘for sale’ sign, so I started looking into it and contacted John Bennett [Swan’s Agency Real Estate Agent] … he said he knew about the property. It took a while to negotiate a deal,” said Post.
After final negotiations last month, Post, who also owns a home in Trenton, closed on the purchase. “For the Mills, it was giving up their life, and we understand that,” said Post, adding that his family will make a nice memorial for them. “Under new ownership, we’re looking to expand with an educational nonprofit, so instead of the oceanarium, it will be the Mount Desert Oceanarium and Education Center.”
Post will leave the day-to-day operations to his son-in-law Jeff Cumming of Freeport. “Being retired, I’m fortunate enough to have him with experience in rehabbing buildings and running nonprofits to run this,” he said.
Cumming, who is married to Christina Post, said he is up for the challenge.
“Obviously, it’s a wonderful facility that hasn’t been used in a few years that definitely needs some improvements and some upgrades,” he said.
There is work to the building that will need to be done before opening to the public. “We’re just getting to the point now where we will be talking to contractors about availability and we will see how much time it will take,” Post said.
“We’re going to be investing some money in either maintaining or improving the structure, there are a couple new roofs that need to be fixed, so we have some work cut out for us, but we think it’s well worth it to fix the initial investment,” said Cumming, who continued, “There will be many of the same things the public remembers fondly, like the touch tank and the lobster boat,” but the nonprofit will also be adding some of its own touches.
“Seeing my then 2-year-old daughter just transfixed by the touch tank, I remember Audrey Mills was kind enough to give my wife a special pass because my daughter didn’t want to go on the walking tours at the oceanarium, she just wanted to go to the touch tank. Seeing that transformation of a young child and that level of wonder, I think, was one of the reasons why we are here now having this conversation,” said Cumming.
In order to preserve the Mills’ lobster boat exhibit, Post’s family plans to find a retired lobsterman who can talk to kids about lobstering on occasion.
Cumming aims to do something similar around the corner from where the Mills used to do presentations about lobster fishing, using eight or more aquarium tanks that will host plants and animals from the Maine coast. “Whatever’s living in the water that’s interesting, we are trying to see if we can get into the tank so folks can take a close up look at it,” he said.
In the future, the owners hope to add more interactive educational activities such as an observatory, art exhibits and reading stations.
“I’m an astronomer, so I’m going to set up an observatory because we have a beautiful dark sky there,” said Post, adding that people have navigated the ocean using the stars for centuries.
“We’d love to get people out on the salt pond next to the parking lot, but the hard part will be whittling down the possibilities of exhibits for whatever we have space for,” Cumming said. Fortunately, his wife will contribute to the learning aspect of the new aquatic museum using her master’s degree in neuroscience and education. “We will be optimizing the way that we teach so we can reach as many people, as efficiently as possible.”
Cumming is confident that the three distinct ocean environments at the education center will fulfill the curiosity of future visitors. “Certainly, the Mills were educating everyone who walked through the door there, so having folks on board with a background in education is definitely going to be a lot of our focus.”
“We plan to be open for most of the year; we would love to have school groups in during the shoulder seasons,” Post said.
A goal for his family–founded nonprofit is to have real community programs, working with College of the Atlantic, camps and various educational institutions. Going from a for-profit to a nonprofit involves help from the community in a variety of ways, one of which, he says, is finding out what people would like to see at the oceanarium.
“This is an opportunity to honor the Mills and what they were able to accomplish in over 30 years and then potentially expand on it with some fresh energy and community buy-in,” said Cumming.
Once the nonprofit receives estimates of renovation and repair times, it plans to host an outdoor event this summer where it will be open to suggestions and donations from the public.
“We are going to need a lot to get it to where we want it to be. The Mills family has been extraordinarily kind, welcoming and generous in helping us along, so we are hopeful to continue in that direction… we have no desire to reinvent the wheel, we want to continue what was working,” Cumming said.