GULFPORT -- The Mississippi Aquarium planned for Gulfport's waterfront would create a visitor experience "significantly larger in scale" than any Coast attraction, a marketing study says.
The Gulfport Redevelopment Commission, which owns 12 acres downtown where the aquarium would be built, is talking about an initial investment of $40 million. Mayor Billy Hewes believes the money will be there. The city already has a $24.5 million commitment from the Mississippi Legislature, and is requesting BP Restore Act funds to make up the difference.
"We are very close to making this a reality," Hewes told the Sun Herald last week. At Gov. Phil Bryant's suggestion, Hewes said, the city initially invested in the project to show it was serious.
Gulfport is paying interest on a $14 million loan used to buy 10 acres of the downtown property, hoping to repay the principal with income from ticket sales and possibly other aquarium proceeds. The GRC, which owns the property, has selected a design team that includes the local architectural firm of Eley Guild Hardy and internationally experienced aquarium designers PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, Mo.
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GRC's next steps are negotiating a contract with the design team, then getting public input before aquarium plans are drawn up. GRC also must hire an aquarium operator.
Hewes said, "It's taken two years of very focused effort and detail to get to this point."
The company that completed the marketing study, Pro Forma Advisors LLC based in Los Angeles, concluded the Coast market would support an aquarium that has 97,000 square feet of enclosed space -- a little more than half the size of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americans in New Orleans. But the Gulfport aquarium concept has a Coast twist, an outdoor river system that dominates the landscape.
To achieve annual revenues of $11.4 million in 2019 dollars, the aquarium would need an average of 487,000 visitors a year, the marketing study concludes. The projected average exceeds by almost 60 percent combined annual attendance for six other Coast tourist attractions: the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, Beauvoir, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Infinity Science Center, the Biloxi Seafood & Heritage Museum and Lynn Meadows Discovery Center.
Market potential for the aquarium project is based on continued population and tourism growth projected from historical trends, and no major disruptions, including hurricanes and recessions.
The city and GRC's plans tie the aquarium through public transit to the harbor south of U.S. 90 and to undeveloped Centennial Plaza (the old Veterans Affairs property), which is 1.75 miles to the east, also on U.S. 90.
The marketing study looked at long-term plans for Centennial Plaza, where developers are still trying to put together financing for a festival marketplace, shops, restaurants and a resort hotel. Future plans include an amusement pier directly south of the property on the Mississippi Sound.
A trolley line to connect the aquarium and Centennial Plaza would be a plus, the study says, as would Centennial Plaza's unique position as a waterfront entertainment destination. Drawbacks for the Centennial Plaza and pier project include "a relatively small local market with limited population and income," the study says, along with limited opportunity for expansion because established residential development sits between Centennial Plaza and the aquarium.
The selected design team, one of five to submit proposals, included concepts for the aquarium buildings and exhibits. The signature feature is an outdoor river and estuaries representative of the Coast environment. The outdoor water feature includes a dolphin exhibit where visitors could feed and touch the animals.
Inside and out, the design concept features acrylic walls that give visitors the sense of being underwater with marine life.
Design concepts show the Gulf Coast Community Gallery and other buildings as backdrops.
"The exhibits are really what the project is all about," architect David Hardy said.
Aquarium design and engineering include life-support systems for the animals. Exhibits represent more than half the cost in the concept for the Mississippi Aquarium. The $40 million price tag does not include inhabitants for the exhibits.
"There is no way to do an aquarium on the cheap." City Council president Rusty Walker said. "We didn't want to do it any way but right."
The City Council was impressed with the selected design team's concepts and qualifications, he said.
"This is an international aquarium designer," Walker said, speaking of PGAV. "They have done all the major aquariums in the world." That includes the world's largest aquarium, Ocean Kingdom in China.
Design of the Mississippi Aquarium will take about a year. The current timetable calls for an April 2019 opening.
Carole Lynn Meadows, GRC's chairwoman, said GRC will convene focus groups, either by invitation or public announcement, to get input on final design plans. She thinks it will be important to include children, parents, educators and business people in the discussions
Education will be a big part of the aquarium's mission. The city is forging partnerships with the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab for marine science and Mississippi State University's veterinary school. The business community will be important in developing marketing strategies for sustainable charitable support.
"It's going to be Mississippi's aquarium," Meadows said, "so we want Mississippians to feel that ownership."