Harrison County

Gulfport will borrow more than expected for Mississippi Aquarium

This is the proposed design for the Mississippi Aquarium in downtown Gulfport in renderings by PGAV of St. Louis and Coast architectural firm Eley Guild Hardy.
This is the proposed design for the Mississippi Aquarium in downtown Gulfport in renderings by PGAV of St. Louis and Coast architectural firm Eley Guild Hardy. Courtesy PGAV, File

Gulfport will borrow more than it first expected to help pay for the $93 million Mississippi Aquarium under construction downtown.

The City Council on Friday agreed to dedicate $35 million in bonds for the aquarium that city leaders are pitching as a family attraction that they expect to generate more than $300 million in economic impact annually for the region.

“From the beginning, we made a commitment to do this project the right way,” City Council President F.B. “Rusty” Walker said. “This bond measure supports that commitment by ensuring that from the very first day the doors open our residents and guests encounter the complete wow-factor of the Mississippi Aquarium and our community experiences the full economic benefit of this family-friendly destination.”

With legislative leaders voicing support for the aquarium, city leaders had hoped to get $30 million from the Mississippi Legislature in the recently ended session. However, that funding didn’t materialize, so the Council agreed to raise more money through bonds. The Legislature approved $24.5 million for the project in the 2015 session. Originally, city leaders had planned to borrow $14.5 million to buy the property and issue $24.5 million in bonds to help pay for construction.

The state has given the project $17.5 million in BP disaster relief money through the RESTORE Act.

Gulfport officials will continue to seek funding from the state legislature for the economic development project.

“Gulfport has already seen significant interest from developers and businesses thanks to the Mississippi Aquarium project, which is why it is critical to meet established construction timelines,” said Mayor Billy Hewes. “We have one shot at creating a truly special family attraction for generations to come. There is nothing on the books for this region that fills a much-needed resort destination niche like the Mississippi Aquarium — particularly from the standpoint of impacts in tourism, conservation and educational opportunities. This is in keeping with our overall vision for Gulfport which includes the continued build-out of our Sportsplex, as well as last term’s bond measure for streets, water, sewer, and drainage projects across the city.”

There are some critics who have labeled the project a “dolphin prison” and are petitioning the city and Gov. Phil Bryant to keep dolphins out of the attraction.

An economic impact study of the aquarium project estimates that out-of-town visitors will contribute to an economic impact of between $300 million and $380 million for the Gulfport region, the city said in a press release. The project will create hundreds of direct and indirect jobs and local taxes generated could top $2 million annually, the study found.

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