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Fred Keeley addresses participants at the National Marine Sanctuary Sdvisory Board meeting and reception Wednesday in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ — Five months after the doors to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center opened, officials say they've had 37,000 people try out the remote-controlled underwater camera exhibit and others such as “How to Catch Calamari” and the “Weird and Wonderful Deep Sea Life.”

The exploration center -- a nearly $17 million free-admission tourist attraction across from Main Beach and the Municipal Wharf -- was celebrated Wednesday by more than 100 community leaders during a reception that focused on how Santa Cruz can benefit economically from linking ocean education with tourism.

The event was an effort by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce and the Sanctuary Exploration Center to raise money for the center to become a key piece to the city's economy.

Officials said building the economy and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive.

Speakers included Vice Mayor Hilary Bryant; Jason Patlis, president of the Maryland-based National Marine Sanctuary Foundation; and Ted Balestreri, a longtime Monterey restaurant owner who has seen Cannery Row emerge as a tourist mecca with 4 million visitors each year.

"Tourism is the largest industry on this planet," Balestreri said as a video played on a screen behind him with sunny images of Cannery Row crowds. "The ocean is a natural magnet. We have to look at the ocean as a temple. If we don't use it and take care of it, we won't have any disciples."


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Patlis praised the hard work of the Santa Cruz community for raising millions of dollars for the center's exhibits over the past five years, saying the work is proof of how much residents value ocean protection and environmental education.

The exploration center attracted more than $3 million in private donations for exhibits.

The city bought the land for $2 million while the majority of the two-story, 12,400-square-foot green building was paid for with federal grants totaling nearly $11 million.

"This fundraising was done during the worst economic crisis of the century," Patlis said. "We want to partner with businesses so that this is a place that draws tourists from all over the world with clean beaches and keeping the kelp forest healthy and vibrant."

Bryant, who is expected to become Santa Cruz's mayor on Tuesday, said it's a blessing to live five minutes from the cold Pacific.

"I love my time in the ocean," she said. "We are so lucky to live in a community that values our sanctuary, the ocean and business."

Bill Douros, the West Coast regional manager for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, said the exploration center's next big step is opening for school groups next fall.

"Everything's going really well," Douros said.

Follow Sentinel reporter Shanna McCord on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsmom