Gulfport plans aquarium on site of Katrina-damaged library! This map shows Jones Park to the south, the proposed aquarium property and the Gulfport library property to the east.
GULFPORT — The historic downtown library so many fought to save is being incorporated into the city’s plans for a major aquarium development that will cost $90 million to $120 million.
The library would become a welcome center and transit area for residents and tourists who visit the aquarium and Gulfport’s waterfront, Mayor Billy Hewes said.
Gulfport already has sunk more than $14 million into downtown facade restorations and landscaping, with about $40 million spent on the harbor. Federal Katrina relief paid for most of those improvements.
Now, state legislation that awaits the governor’s signature would provide $24.5 million toward the aquarium. To get the money, the city showed it was serious by spending $14 million on about nine acres downtown, where the project would sit.
The city took out a short-term loan to buy the property, intending to repay it with ticket sales and possibly other aquarium proceeds. Chief Administrative Officer John Kelly said only interest on the loan would be paid until the aquarium is built, hopefully in three to four years.
Hewes and Kelly said the tentatively named Mississippi Aquarium would be a regional draw, adding to Coast attractions such as casinos, Infinity Science Center in Hancock County, the Biloxi Shuckers baseball stadium, Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, and eco-tourism along the Pascagoula River.
“We took the One Coast approach” to secure state funding, Hewes said, “understanding that this project is bigger than one city.”
Hewes said city research also showed legislators that of the $145 million in state bonds issued for museums and attractions since 2008, 73 percent of funding has gone to the Jackson metro area. Less than six percent, he said, was spent in South Mississippi.
Kelly said state funding represents a “carrot” to attract developers who might be interested in a public-private partnership on the aquarium.
The city needs to find up to $80 million more if cost estimates for the project are accurate. In addition to private investment, Hewes is banking on funding from the Restore Act that Coast localities expect to receive as a result of the BP oil spill.
The city is paying interest only on a short-term loan that financed its purchase of the downtown property.
Hewes told the Sun Herald that Coast Transit Authority is applying for a federal transportation grant and has committed to spend $7.5 million for renovation of the old library on U.S. 90, gutted by Hurricane Katrina; work on its adjacent parking garage; and construction of an elevated highway crossover for pedestrians, bikes and a tram.
The CTA and library property would make the entire project 12 acres.
The next step will be finalizing a market study for an aquarium. A draft of the study, Kelly said, suggests the aquarium would attract 500,000 visitors a year. The study will not be publicly released until it is finalized.
Hewes said the city also has a private commitment for a $20 million investment in a 200-room hotel for the property.
Hewes and Kelly acknowledge a lot of work remains to attract and finance an aquarium. But even if it is never built, they said, buying the downtown property was the right strategy for the city. The property was in the hands of 10 different owners, with the largest four-acre site owned by First Baptist Church, which moved north after the hurricane.
“What we could have ended up with,” Kelly said, “was a hodge-podge of development on some of the finest property in the state of Mississippi.”
March 31, 2015
BY ANITA LEE