GULFPORT The Mississippi Aquarium is on schedule for a summer groundbreaking on the main building.
A website is up and running with a live construction camera so residents can watch the progress and see all the work in time lapse. Right now, W.C. Fore Trucking is building the waterfront property’s elevation from 18 to 25 feet.
Director David Kimmel, an engineer, has been working on the construction budget while the University of Southern Mississippi completes a market analysis on its economic impact. Worst-case scenario, Kimmel says he’s confident the aquarium will break even if only 350,000 people a year visit.
He thinks the actual results will put the tourist attraction in the black. A minimum of 418,000 visitors a year, the study projects, would bring in revenue of $8 million. Operating costs are projected at $7.7 million. The power bill alone is expected to run $650,000 a year.
“If we open up with no debt,” said Kimmel, who previously directed the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, “there’s no reason we wouldn’t be successful …. As long as we stay above that 350,000 (visitors per year) we’re not going to be a burden on anyone in terms of operating costs.”
Kimmel and others have said the aquarium will be debt-free, which will help keep costs down. But the city borrowed $14.5 million to buy the property, hoping to repay the debt with aquarium revenue. The state has agreed to issue $24.5 million in bonds toward construction and has pledged $17.5 million in BP oil-catastrophe money.
Kimmel said the aquarium will be asking for $30 million more when the Legislature holds its special session June 5. Without that money, Kimmel said, the aquarium will be built in phases.
The main building and an entry building are going up. The acrylic has already been ordered for unique features in the aquarium, including a transparent tunnel surrounded by water and a large viewing window. The city is expecting another streetscaping grant, like those used downtown, for landscaping and sidewalks.
Kimmel is unsure without full funding how many, if any, of the aquarium’s outdoor water features can be completed. The outdoor features include a winding river and dolphin pool. He’s hoping the dolphin pool will be part of the first phase if construction is phased.
A big fundraising campaign also is planned. MESH marketing and advertising agency in Baton Rouge is planning the campaign and designed the aquarium’s website.
The aquarium’s total estimated design and construction budget — including animals, startup and land costs — is $93 million. Kimmel said he expects to go out for bids the first week in July on building construction.
Coast Transit Authority is moving ahead with plans for a transit station across from the aquarium in the shell of the old Gulfport library gutted by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Kimmel said the aquarium will have its offices on the building’s second floor.