Aquatic nonprofit still struggling to bring major attraction to city

Aquatic nonprofit still struggling to bring major attraction to city
Early rendering of proposed Jacksonville aquarium on the Northbank.

Four years after a small group of like-minded individuals formed a nonprofit to bring an aquarium to Jacksonville, it may seem as though not much has been done. But Erika Sepega, volunteer treasurer and website administrator for AquaJax, doesn’t see it that way at all.

“There are hurdles and roadblocks a project like this runs into before doors open. It can be upwards of 20 years for projects like this to move from a sketch on a restaurant napkin until you can open the doors,” she said. “I don’t think we’re behind the ball; we’re progressing in a forward fashion.”

Sepega, a geophysicist, a licensed commercial hard-hat diver, and mother of two small children, became interested in the venture when she saw the AquaJax exhibit at One Spark in 2014. Now, in addition to minding the group’s funds, Sepega also dons the Monty the Manatee mascot costume to drum up interest in and support for the multi-million-dollar project.

One of the first steps taken was a $50,000 feasibility study, funded in part by the One Spark prize for first place in the public crowdfunding vote in the science category.

Erika Sepega goes undercover as Monty the Manatee, the AquaJax mascot.

Erika Sepega goes undercover as Monty the Manatee, the AquaJax mascot.

The two-month study by ConsultEcon Inc. is finished but not yet publicly available, according to Sepega. “We’re in the process of updating the website, and will include information from the study. I can say the study did support Jacksonville’s ability to maintain an aquarium of the proposed size and stay in the black. That was a very happy result.”

The next steps include nailing down five acres of property for the aquarium and signing on a champion, followed by the launching of a capital campaign, Sepega said, indicating they are hoping to put the facility near the Jacksonville Fire Museum, west of Metropolitan Park on Gator Bowl Boulevard.

“We have been working with Shad Khan and Iguana Investments for a couple of years now. We meet every month or two,” she said. “They have given us the permission to say that Shad Khan and Iguana Investments support our efforts and are interested in the aquarium, but Mr. Khan has no interest per se in funding an aquarium. Of course, it will be an attraction bringing people to the hotels and restaurants.”

Sepega stated the latest proposal for the Shipyards does include three open areas where an aquarium could be located, although the facility is not written into Iguana Investments’ plan.

“One spot is the one we wanted; one is where they would prefer to put it, near a hotel; and the other is a place with opportunity for expansion and parking,” she said. “They have put some thought into where the aquarium would fit into the big picture.”

The piece of the puzzle is funding, including a champion donor. AquaJax Founder George Harrell and JJ Hammond have been meeting with many influencers throughout Jacksonville, said Sepega.

“Even when it comes to the 13,000 Facebook followers and the community events, it’s hard when you have an organization that people have supported for a couple of years and we have not made any major breakthroughs with the two major pieces of the puzzle,” she said. “We hope to be gearing up toward a larger capital campaign toward the end of the year.”

The AquaJax team will hold a fundraiser, Rayo de Mayo, Thursday, May 18, 6-9 p.m. at Engine 15 Brewery, 6633 Myrtle Ave. N. Tickets can be purchased at Eventbrite.com.


By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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