Harrison County

Penguins will formally open Mississippi Aquarium in spring 2019

South African penguins are part of an exhibit at the Miami Seaquarium on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. The ‘Penguin Plunge’ will be one of the first exhibits open at the Mississippi Aquarium when it opens in Spring 2019.
South African penguins are part of an exhibit at the Miami Seaquarium on Tuesday, December 13, 2016. The ‘Penguin Plunge’ will be one of the first exhibits open at the Mississippi Aquarium when it opens in Spring 2019. pfarrell@miamiherald.com File

South African penguins will be the first creatures on display in the changing exhibit at the $93 million Mississippi Aquarium.

Aquarium director David Kimmel said “Penguin Plunge” has already been booked for one year, beginning with the aquarium’s opening in the spring of 2019.

The City Council on Tuesday solidified aquarium plans by unanimously approving a $35 million bond issue that will complete funding, which includes money from the state and BP oil catastrophe. The regional tourist attraction is being built on 5.8 acres downtown, on the waterfront across from the harbor.

When full payments on the bonds begin in 2019, they are estimated to exceed $2.7 million a year through 2037, a city debt schedule shows. The city also is making interest-only payments on a line of credit used to buy the aquarium campus. The latest yearly payment was $300,000.

Kelly said the city believes an increase in visitors and local spending should bring in enough additional sales taxes to cover the aquarium debt. The city expects a minimum of 300,000 visitors a year at the aquarium.

The aquarium will include four buildings, plus an outdoor water feature with fresh water and salt water where dolphins will swim.

Officials gather to show plans for the Mississippi Aquarium to be located in downtown Gulfport.

An indoor tank in the main building will feature an acrylic tunnel and windows. Kimmel outlined work currently underway on the aquarium:

▪  The city is expected to award a contract Sept. 5 for the acrylic walls and tunnel, with four bids received.

▪  Bids are due September 22 on a construction contract for the aquarium buildings.

▪  A geotechnical contract also should be awarded September 22 for testing of building materials.

▪  The aquarium will start hiring later this year, when an aquarist will be brought aboard to develop a list of fish to be stocked and begin acquiring those fish.

Kimmel said the aquarium’s fundraising arm, the Mississippi Aquarium Foundation, is up and running. The foundation, chaired by Anthony Wilson of Mississippi Power, will focus on large donations and sponsorships.

A development officer — which the aquarium expects to hire early next year — will work on community fundraising, including sponsorships of tiles where donor names and messages can be displayed. Kimmel said the tiles will be placed on the walls of aquarium buildings.

A raised dirt foundation already has been laid for the aquarium, with grass planted over it to prevent erosion. The foundation has settled, so some of the dirt will be removed before construction begins. He hopes a building contractor will be on site and working by mid-October.

“People are going to see movement after that,” Kimmel said. “It’s really going to be fun to see.”

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