Plans resurface for downtown aquarium

Plans resurface for downtown aquarium
Rendering from 2015 depicting a new aquarium on the Northbank.

A new wave of excitement is rippling across Jacksonville with the resurfacing of plans to build a riverfront aquarium. The impetus for that wave is Scott Grant, the new chairman of the advancement committee for AquaJax, the nonprofit organization that is working to make the Atlantic Aquarium an actuality. AquaJax first began the push for the aquarium in 2014, but after that initial effort, the plans were submerged until Grant came on board. 

The estimated cost for the giant, stingray shaped attraction would be approximately $100 million, and would bring with it almost 1,000 jobs and a $30.8 million payroll, touted Grant, when he spoke May 9 at the Exchange Club luncheon at River City Brewing Company.     

“We’ve been around for a few years with this idea – we have one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to bring a world-class aquarium to a city that we all love,” he said. “Right now, we are trying to get public support and we are trying to overcome the objection that it can’t be done. It can be done. It will be done.”

Grant’s aim is to acquire most of the funding from a single donor, and he hopes to build the aquarium on property leased from the City. The four most likely sites for the aquarium are the Shipyards, the old City Hall, the Jacksonville Landing and the old Ford Motor Company plant – all City-owned properties. Ideally, the aquarium would break ground in 2021. 

“The aquarium will be solar powered, have 150,000 square feet of exhibition space, and it will be the most iconic structure in Jacksonville once it’s completed,” Grant said.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens passed a resolution a few years back stating that if the aquarium were to be built, it would be run as the Zoo’s sister facility.  Dan Maloney, deputy director of the Zoo, is an AquaJax board member. Before coming to Jacksonville, Maloney worked with several multi-campus zoological institutions, two of which had aquariums. 

“We think we have demonstrated our value to the community, so we’d love to be able to do that down along the river,” he said. “We already know how to run a zoo facility and we have human resources, a marketing department and other resources that would be available for the aquarium. Based on models that are already in place, it would be very successful. It would be a great thing for our region – it’s a matter of taking it to that next step.” 

There is a possibility that river cruise transport will be available between the aquarium and the Zoo, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the scenic St. Johns River. 

Sharks, seals, manatees, local aquatic life and more will be featured at the aquarium. It will not only be an entertainment attraction, it will also focus on education, research and conservation. The idea is to work in conjunction with Jacksonville University, University of North Florida, Florida State College, Flagler College and others on those efforts. Plans include working with manatees and studying baby great white sharks, which will be tagged and released as they get too big for the aquarium.  

“We are not trying to build the biggest aquarium, but we are trying to build the coolest,” said Grant. 

During his presentation, Grant showed how other cities had benefitted from building aquariums. For example, Dubuque, Iowa has a population of 95,000 and has 480,000 visitors to their aquarium every year. Within a couple of years of the Tennessee Aquarium being built in Chattanooga, 150 new businesses opened within a one-mile radius and real estate values around the aquarium increased by 124%. The National Aquarium in Baltimore was the centerpiece of the Baltimore Harbor revitalization. With 1.7 million visitors annually, it is the largest tourist attraction in the state of Maryland.  

“We anticipate that the aquarium will have a billion-dollar economic impact in Jacksonville with 890,000 visits in year one and 1.15 million visits by year three,” said Grant. 

During the remainder of the year, Grant will continue to do presentations to various groups and organizations to build public awareness of and public support for the project. The biggest need right now is money to build 3D renderings and virtual walkthroughs so they can reel in a big donor. 

“This aquarium is coming. I didn’t get involved to try, I got involved to actually build this thing,” said Grant.

By Kandace Lankford
Resident Community News

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