WLOX.com – The News for South Mississippi

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) –

The multimillion-dollar Mississippi Aquarium is now under construction in downtown Gulfport.

The site offers a picturesque view of Jones Park. It helps tie together a downtown business district and offers families an attraction they can enjoy.

Proponents say it will be an economic game changer.

If contractors stay on schedule, at least part of the Mississippi Aquarium opens in early 2019. The governor, Gulfport’s mayor, and other community leaders say it will change the tourism landscape of the coast.

The state and the city have a vested interest in its success, because a bulk of the $93 million price tag comes from taxpayers. Because public money is tied to the aquarium, we started digging to make sure the tourism attraction doesn’t become a drain on the city.

Downtown Gulfport is a busy place these days. Tons of dirt are coming in to make way for the aquarium, but it won’t be cheap.

The total cost? $93 million, including $56 million for construction, more than $12 million for start up costs, including buying animals, $10 million for design and engineering, and more than $14 million for land acquisition.

Aquarium backers say it will be worth it.

“I believe it’s an investment in the future of the Gulf Coast, because we are so lacking in a diversity of entertainment for families. I think this will add to that list, and it will fill up a hole that’s currently there,” said Gulfport Redevelopment Commissioner Carole Lynn Meadows.

A good portion of the cost will come from taxpayers, about $57 million. A public vote to earmark that money for the aquarium was not necessary. Members of the Steps Coalition believe votes should be a requirement

“Taxpayers should actually have the right to have a say about whether or not they want to pay for that bond, because they are ultimately liable. They’re ultimately the ones that are going to pay,” said Robert Avila, with the Steps Coalition.

Will the aquarium make money? The original attendance projection in a 2015 analysis said up to 557,000 visitors a year would visit the aquarium.

To build a baseline budget, aquarium officials now place that figure at a more conservative 350,000 visitors. If that happens, the aquarium could generate revenue of $8 million a year, with annual expenses totaling $7.5 million.

But, there are doubters. Just look to the east in Biloxi, where another attraction has fallen short of expectations.

“Developers promote a project so that people can get excited about it, but there’s always a possibility that the project may not pan out, as we saw with MGM Park,” said Avila.

In the aquarium business, there are no guarantees. Ron Forman oversees the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.

“On strictly economic development of the viability of an aquarium, with revenue coming in and expenses going out, there’s a wide range of successes. There’s also a wide range of failures,” said Forman.

There is one thing that tips the scales in favor of success.

“The most important thing in building the facilities that I’ve seen across the country is they don’t come in with a lot of debt. If they owe money, they have to borrow to build the aquarium. That’s a tough thing to make enough money to pay off debt and have operating money,” said Forman.

However, supporters say these attractions offer something unique. David Kimmel should know. For years, he worked at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Gulfport recently lured Kimmel to the Magnolia State so he could oversee the Mississippi Aquarium.

“If you look at the demographics and the market place, aquariums are different. These are places where we come to learn. It is an educational opportunity for our school kids. It is a place, again, to come and explore together,” said Kimmel.

Another possible concern is competition with the New Orleans Aquarium. That’s not a concern, city leaders say. In fact, they think a marketing partnership between the Audubon facility and the aquarium in Gulfport could be developed.

Concern number three is the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies on Gulfport’s industrial seaway. A new IMMS aquarium is about to open. Proponents say don’t worry, they’ll complement each other.

“We have a children’s museum in Mobile. We have a children’s museum in New Orleans. We also have a children’s museum in Gulfport, and we do not seem to impact the others in any negative way,” said Meadows.

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