GULFPORT -- Plans are in progress to develop an educational aqua-tourism attraction at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies.
Moby Solangi, IMMS executive director, said the land is cleared for the attraction, which will extend over 7 acres adjacent to Solangi's current facility along the Industrial Seaway that connects with Biloxi's Back Bay.
Bids for the project will be opened March 3. IMMS also has applied for a permit with the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop the property.
Solangi would not say how much money is being invested in the expansion.
"This is a multimillion-dollar project," he said. "We have the funding in place and we hope to start on it as soon as the bids are opened. Most of the funding is through federal grants.
"This project is part of our educational public-display mission. It is an expansion of what we are currently doing."
He is pushing for the expansion because of the popularity of the services IMMS provides.
"We are running out of space," he said. "We think we will probably have about 100,000 visitors a year when we open the new section early next year."
Design plans for the expansion call for an aviary, a large pavilion that will house dolphin shows and an area where participants can get up close with marine life.
"We are going to have an area where you can swim with the sharks and stingrays," he said. "If you don't want to do that, you can pet them or feed them. You'll be able to feed the birds from your hands in the aviary.
"People will still come to the current facility for the museum and the auditorium."
Solangi said he believes adequate funding is in place for the expansion.
"We are going to do some of the things ourselves to help cut down on the cost," he said. "By doing it that way, we will be getting more bang for our buck."
The Gulfport Redevelopment Commission recently announced it will pursue a $40 million aquarium for the downtown area. Solangi said he believes the IMMS expansion would not be competing with the proposed aquarium.
"It's a different concept," he said. "Our concept is more in education and research. I'm not privy to what Gulfport is doing. We think that's more of a tourist attraction and what we are doing is more educational. It takes the scientific aspect and makes it fun."
He said he will charge admission to the new attraction, although he didn't say how much.
"Science is not free; education is not free," he said. "We charge admission now. You have to pay a fee."
This is the third time Solangi has been connected to an aqua-tourism project on the Coast. He was president of Marine Life Oceanarium at the Gulfport Harbor until it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He tried to bring Ocean Expo aquarium to the Interstate 10/110 area in D'Iberville, but the project fell through because of funding and site issues.