The Water Works

Phelan Fretz heeded the Siren's call to come to Lake Champlain

By Tom Gresham

Phelan Fretz leapt at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry and be in on the birth of ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, a nascent institution blessed with promise and fresh possibility.

In 2002, Phelan Fretz made the kind of career move that tends to raise a few eyebrows. Fretz decided to leave his job as the director of programs and exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the largest science museum in the country, to become the executive director of the as-yet-unbuilt ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington. Simply put: Fretz left an institution that boasted a $40 million annual budget for one with a first-year budget of $1.3 million.

He spotted, however, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in ECHO, a 28,000-square-foot lake aquarium, science and educational center. He saw a nascent institution blessed with promise and fresh possibility.

"How many times in your life do you get to open a new museum?" Fretz asks. "This is it for me. This is incredibly exciting. I've been in this business for 20 years, and I'll probably retire in another 20 years, and I'll never get another opportunity like this. You put in a lot of 90-hour weeks to get it running, but when it's done and we're running like we are right now, well, it's pretty great."

ECHO's debut year on the Burlington waterfront has been an impressive one. Through December, more than 120,000 people had visited ECHO, which opened on June 1, 2003, with considerable fanfare. Fretz expects that institution will have surpassed 150,000 visitors by the time its first year of business is complete, exceeding the already high expectations for the lake aquarium and science center.

In its brief history, it has managed to become a central element of Burlington's downtown atmosphere and a frequent destination for local residents and visiting tourists. In October, ECHO was awarded Vermont's first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the only lake aquarium in the country with this certification.

Fretz says ECHO, which occupies the former Naval Reserve building at the bottom of College Street, offers a number of challenges for the people who run it. It exists partly to provide an educational resource on the Lake Champlain basin, but it must be more than just informative. It must also entertain a large audience. Eighty percent of ECHO's operating budget originates from earned revenues in other words, "people who come through the front door and spend money," says Fretz.

ECHO will have surpassed 150,000 visitors by the time its first year of business is complete, exceeding the high expectations for the center. Katrina Roberts (left) is director of marketing and business development; Rob Landry, director of guest experience; and Luanne Cantor, director of finance and administration.

"We really have an interesting balance here. We're a public trust, and our mission is to educate and delight about the ecology, culture, history and opportunity for stewardship in the Lake Champlain basin [thus, the name ECHO]. Educate and delight are the two operative words here. We've got to make it a lot of fun, but there's also a message we have to relay. We really want to help people learn to be better stewards of their environment."

ECHO explores the Lake Champlain basin, the watershed area around and including Lake Champlain. It has two close research partners with facilities at the Leahy Center: the Lake Champlain Basin Program and the University of Vermont's Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory.

The creative designs of the exhibits at ECHO deftly erase any line separating education from entertainment. For instance, visitors can play a pinball machine in which the pinball navigates the various paths a brook trout might take to reach Lake Champlain. Nearby, a display shows how fishing flies resemble the real flies that local fish feast on. ECHO also features an exhibit and video on Champ, the legendary sea monster of Lake Champlain, and a replica of a shipwreck that lies on the bottom of the lake. Many of the exhibits demonstrate an obvious slant toward children. There are at least two hands-on exhibits with pools of water beckoning to visitors. "It's like playing in a bathtub for the kids," Fretz says with a laugh.

Of course, ECHO visitors encounter many of the real creatures that call the Lake Champlain basin home. Displays at the center feature the more than 60 species of fish, reptiles and amphibians, each accompanied by information detailing the creatures' characteristics and place in their habitat. ECHO also hosts an exhibit room that changes its contents three times a year. Future themes of the room include Hunters of the Sky and Grossology, the impolite science of the human body. The emphasis on constantly evolving offerings extends to having a full-time staff person, Julie Silverman, director of new products, dedicated completely to chasing new concepts for the space.

"How do you drive the attendance machine?" Fretz says. "You drive it with absolutely amazing experiences. We spend a lot of time on the quality of our exhibits and the training of our employees. Repeat business and word-of-mouth are the names of the game. Fifty percent of the people who come here come because somebody told them, 'You've got to go see ECHO,' so, that's who our best marketers are: the people who came here yesterday."

Families and children are obvious targets for the ECHO Center, and Fretz says most of the 7,500 annual passes (about double the sales it expected) have been sold to families. Organized school groups account for 15 percent of the attendance. Tourism has also proven to be a huge boon for ECHO attendance: 55 percent of visitors have come from out of state. The brand-new facility managed to establish itself as an obvious place to visit for tourists in its first summer, drawing 26,000 visitors in July.

Fretz says he's pleased with the way ECHO has managed to quickly integrate itself into the city's vibrant life. He says the prime location and the building's aesthetic appeal have been critical.

"Our location is key," Fretz says. "Even in the middle of the winter, there's a thousand people in here on a Saturday. It's cold and the wind is blowing off the water, but it's still gorgeous. People kind of gravitate toward it. We're four blocks from Church Street and at the entryway to Waterfront Park. It's just a very powerful location."

Displays at ECHO feature some of the 2,200 fish, reptiles and amphibians housed there. Steve Smith, director of exhibits and facilities, holds one of ECHO's snapping turtles; Julie Silverman, director of new products, presents a wood turtle.

ECHO also had the advantage of enjoying a splashy opening, complete with appearances by several local luminaries, including Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle and Sen. Patrick Leahy, who helped secure $7.5 million in federal funding for the construction of ECHO. Four local clergy blessed the facility.

Fretz and his staff have worked hard to capitalize on the center's early prominence, establishing an impressive array of sponsorships and partnerships with the business community a fact Fretz owes largely to marketing director Katrina Roberts, a former staffer at the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce.

In its short life, ECHO has also managed to become an established venue for after-hours special events. Its attractive facility and peerless view of the lake make it an appealing location for parties. It has hosted a wide array of board meetings, wedding receptions and dinner and cocktail parties.

ECHO also has become involved with community events such as First Night, the annual New Year's Eve party held in downtown Burlington. Those with tickets to First Night received free access to the center, and 1,260 people visited that day. Furthermore, WPTZ-TV meteorologist Tom Messner hosts weather reports regularly from ECHO's weather center.

"I'm really excited about being at a place where the institution can be such an important part of the community and it's a community that you can really get your arms around," Fretz says. "You can really feel it."

He believes his instinct to jump from one of the country's most renowned museums to an unknown, unbuilt institution in modest Vermont has served him well. Fretz, who has also worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and the New England Aquarium in Boston, says ECHO can have as profound an impact on its visitors as much more capacious institutions.

"When you see people walk into this place for the first time and you see them just go, 'Wow!' and you see their faces, that's why you're in this business," Fretz says. "They're getting excited about the outside world they wouldn't otherwise think about."

Originally published in February 2004 Business People-Vermont