One Spark was bright move for aquarium advocates

One Spark was bright move for aquarium advocates

AquaJax wins crowdfunding votes –

It’s old news at this point that visitors to the 2nd annual One Spark crowdfunding festival put their money where their votes were for an aquarium in Downtown Jacksonville.
But, the people behind AquaJax – the name of the advocacy group for a Jacksonville aquarium – are convinced that “the people have spoken” and they continue to make great strides forward.

Within two weeks after the festival ended, George Harrell, president of AquaJax, met with Harold Samms, the JTA’s senior manager of service delivery, at Visit Jacksonville’s office. “They [the JTA] want us to incorporate in the aquarium design a station for the Skyway; they are proposing to extend the Skyway to the aquarium,” said Harrell in an interview with The Resident late last month. “The aquarium then becomes the glue that holds Downtown together with the sports complexes.”
During that exclusive interview with Harrell and San Jose resident Tukz Taaca, the men shared excitement about The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ partnership with AquaJax, but expressed disappointment that the Downtown Investment Authority’s community redevelopment plan released last month did not specify support for an aquarium. “When the draft paper came out there was no mention of tourism, not a word. By the next meeting, I had word that they added tourism to the business plan, but did not specify the aquarium,” Harrell said.The Resident obtained a copy of the plan, but it was not immediately clear that tourism in any shape was part of that plan, which appears to focus on venues such as Snyder Memorial, Hemming Plaza, MOSH, and Friendship Fountain as well as retail enhancement, housing, signage, lighting and cleaning, and Art in Public Places.

Visit Jacksonville in AquaJax’s corner

In addition to support from the Zoo and the JTA, the City’s tourism bureau is also pulling for the aquarium.
“Visit Jacksonville commends AquaJax for its desire to revitalize the downtown area by building a new attraction to bring more visitors to Northeast Florida and the City of Jacksonville,” said Paul Astleford, CEO of Visit Jacksonville. “The AquaJax group is among a number of organizations that are promoting innovative plans to increase awareness about our city and bolster tourism here.”

Last year, tourism accounted for $2.2 billion in direct and indirect economic impact to Jacksonville. “A world class aquarium in Jacksonville would certainly increase that impact significantly – not only benefiting the tourism industry, but also all of us who live, work and play here,” Astleford noted.

When, where, how

If the momentum continues, Harrell predicts that they could be cutting the ribbon in three years. The group projects one million visitors its first year, which could generate over $335 million in direct spending and another $5.6 million in bed tax revenues.

Where that ribbon-cutting will occur remains to be seen. Harrell and Taaca left the interview with The Resident for a tour of two potential sites near Metro Park, the most advantages being the vacant property directly behind Metro Park Marina, where a children’s park used to reside. “The one piece of the puzzle that we don’t have yet is to get the City to lease us the land,” said Harrell. “It would be perfect. There’s room there to accommodate the JTA station.”

As for financing, the prize money received from One Spark – nearly $14,000 – is just a drop in the bucket compared to the projected $100-125 million cost for an aquarium with a five-acre footprint. But it’s a start in helping to further the cause, and it’s been reported that AquaJax would seek to obtain 40 percent to 50 percent of the project cost through fundraising, from both private individuals and corporate sponsors, in exchange for naming rights to different exhibits and venues within the aquarium.

Who’s behind AquaJax

Along with Harrell, AquaJax’s “inner sanctum” includes a variety of individuals from all other Jacksonville, among them Brad Huber, a commercial real estate investor who handles AquaJax’s real estate and, as the project advances, its financing; Paul Astleford, CEO for Visit Jacksonville, who introduced Harrell to Dan Maloney, Deputy Director of Conservation and Education for the Jacksonville Zoo; Paul Frase, former NFL player and president of The Joshua Frase Foundation; Lisa Almeida, CEO of two local chapters of The Freedom Boat Club and recently named Up and Coming Entrepreneur of the Year at the Women in Business Awards; Lew Belkin, former economic development director for the Jacksonville Housing Authority, Dean Phifer, an aquarium guru who is also working with the nonprofit group to bring the USS Charles Adams to the Northbank, Alex Sifakis, president and founding partner of JWB Real Estate Capital, and Tukz Taaca, president/owner of Safety First CPR and Safety Training.

The core for the nonprofit advocacy group also includes 12-year-old Carly, a sixth grade student at Mayport Middle School who badly wants to be a marine biologist and feels an aquarium in Jacksonville will help her reach her goal.

According to Taaca, “I have my personal reason for wanting an aquarium…I want it for the kids! All over the country, aquariums have educated, inspired, and motivated youngsters of all ages. Our project can bring what our kids read and study in school to life!”
By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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