Concerns and hope run high for Mississippi Aquarium - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Concerns and hope run high for Mississippi Aquarium

The Mississippi Aquarium is on the way in downtown Gulfport at a cost of $93 million. (Photo Source: File) The Mississippi Aquarium is on the way in downtown Gulfport at a cost of $93 million. (Photo Source: File)
GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) -

The Mississippi Aquarium is on the way in downtown Gulfport at a cost of $93 million. A lot of that money, $57 million, comes from you, the taxpayers. Will this multimillion-dollar bet really pay off?

When the first feasibility study came out two years ago, the figures were glowing. A new analysis by a University of Southern Mississippi researcher paints a more realistic picture about what we can expect from the aquarium.

Still, the numbers are impressive. At least 400 jobs. As much as a $380 million economic impact if attendance projections meet expectations.

The key to success for the Mississippi Aquarium will be attracting repeat customers paying about $20 to $25 a piece.

“We can bring in traveling exhibits on a yearly or every six months basis where people have a reason to come back and visit us again and again and see something new and different,” said aquarium President David Kimmel.

If that happens, the preliminary findings in a USM study say this will occur: The aquarium will create at least 400 jobs, have an economic impact of at least $297 million, and generate tax revenue between $13 million and $20 million.

Even with $57 million in the bank right now, aquarium officials need to raise another $36 million through the state legislature, through sponsors, or through donations to fund the entire project. There's a plan in place if that doesn't happen right away.

“One of the things that's really beautiful about our layout now and design is the fact that we can build in components and build up as cash flow comes in,” said Kimmel.

While some social advocacy groups aren't necessarily against building this aquarium, some leaders of those organizations do have questions about the use of taxpayer dollars. They say that money could be used better somewhere else, something with perhaps an even greater impact on the overall tourism bottom line.

“This money could be spent for better uses. Of course, we have our beaches closed constantly because of the failing sewer systems, and there are numbers of other recovery projects that we could be doing after our damage from BP to bring our beaches back, which, of course, supports our tourist industry, so that's what we'd like to see,” said Howard Page, with the Gulf Restoration Network.

There are also concerns about nearby competition in New Orleans and the soon to open Institute for Marine Mammal Studies aquarium, also in Gulfport. But, the sugar white sand is a sure thing.

“The beaches on the coast have supported our tourist industry for over 50 years. It's a proven draw for our businesses here. Whereas an aquarium, competing with New Orleans is an unknown,” said Page. “The costs are unknown and will people come is an unknown.”

Another unknown is hurricanes. Can the aquarium withstand another Katrina?

“We're bringing in truck after truck after truck of fill dirt. We're taking that site, and we're raising it up about 10 feet high to get us above Katrina flood levels as well. So, we're building for Katrina flood levels. We're building for hurricane strength winds,” said Kimmel.

It's really a matter of risk versus reward.

“When we have the connector from the aquarium across Hwy. 90 into the park, it will be worth that risk. I really do believe that,” said Gulfport Redevelopment Commissioner Carole Lynn Meadows.

The aquarium will have dolphins on display, similar to IMMS. Animal rights activists have expressed concern for years about keeping marine mammals in captivity.

“Animals in our care allow us to understand more about animals in the wild and help us understand how to take care of them out there,” said Kimmel.

Back in New Orleans at the Aquarium of the Americas, is Gulfport considered a threat?

“When you take the 1.3 million of our metropolitan population and the 10 or 11 million tourists, that gives us 12 million people to deal with. We're going to do quite fine for our facility, and we're not worried at all about any potential competition,” said Audubon Nature Institute President Ron Forman.

Another coast attraction built partially with public tax dollars is the Infinity Science Center in Hancock County. Almost half of the $30 million price tag for Infinity came out of your pockets.

Did that pay off? The executive director of Infinity offers a unique perspective. The Infinity comparison is a web exclusive you’ll only find on WLOX.com: http://bit.ly/2rMXRLc

Copyright 2017 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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