Imagine it’s a Saturday in January. There is a nip in the air in the morning, but in the afternoon, it warms up to a pleasant 72 degrees. You run some errands and then rush to your favorite sports bar to watch the game. The Jaguars are playing for the AFC Championship at home. Like most of the people around you, you wish you had been able to get tickets. The room is electric. Expectations are high. Maybe this is the year we finally win another Super Bowl! The telecast begins and the camera pans across the St. Johns River. As the camera gains speed and pans forward, the new Atlantic Aquarium appears to rise out of the depths of the St. Johns like a giant solar-powered stingray glistening in the Florida sun. Its upturned wings frame the azure sky and invoke a feeling of motion. Your heart swells with pride. As the picture dissolves into a blimp shot passing over the top of the aquarium, you can see fans gathered at a watch party on the rooftop deck.
If a group of local visionaries have their way, this dream will soon become a reality. Many people believe that the aquarium could become the symbol of a new Jacksonville. Here are five things you need to know.
The structure itself will be breathtaking. It has to be. In order to do what it is supposed to do, it needs to be one of the coolest things most people will ever see in their lifetime. The group in charge of the project intends to build a modern wonder-of-the-world on the banks of the St. Johns. Think Golden Gate Bridge or Sydney Opera House. The gleaming solar-powered structure will resemble a winged manta ray rising like a phoenix to soar over a bustling Sports Complex.
It will spur development. The iconic structure will become the symbol of Jacksonville and will appear as such in magazines, films and millions of selfies. People will travel here just to have their picture taken in front of it. When Chattanooga built its aquarium, the land around it immediately more than doubled in value. Hundreds of businesses popped up almost overnight. The Atlantic Aquarium will be the center of a development district that you are going to love. Businesses, hotels and restaurants will spring up all around it. Expert studies estimate more than a billion dollars in economic benefits will appear in the first 10 years.
It will serve as a center for education and research. Everyone involved raves about the amazing opportunities for local school kids. The opportunity to learn about our diverse local aquatic eco-systems in a state-of-the-art research facility is very exciting. Local students will have the opportunity to take fantastic field trips that could include camping inside overnight. Imagine watching a performance of the Jacksonville Symphony surrounded by tanks of fish swimming languidly by. Here in Jacksonville, we have the unique opportunity to study three different types of water: salt, fresh and brackish. Water is the key to Florida’s past and future.
Jobs, jobs and more jobs. A major goal of redevelopment is to provide jobs. In addition to creating hundreds of construction jobs as the area is rebuilt into a breathtaking tourist destination, the Atlantic Aquarium will create more than 1,200 permanent positions, with a payroll exceeding $12 million.
Tourism. Every year, 88.5 million people visit the Sunshine State. Only 3.2 million of those come to Jacksonville. Studies show that most folks who do come to our city are here to visit family or go to the beach. Two of the five busiest highways in America, Interstate 10 and Interstate 95, both pass through our city. Right now, there are no reasons for anyone to stop here. The new Atlantic Aquarium has the same lofty aim that Marine Studios did when it was first built: to attract visitors from all over the world. When we build it, they will come. The aquarium will be an event destination featuring galas, corporate events and weddings—lots and lots of weddings. Current plans include an Airbnb room where visitors will literally be able to sleep with the fishes. How cool is that?
Jacksonville deserves something this iconic. It will take a public-private partnership the likes of which our fair city has not seen since the days of Mayor Haydon Burns. In the end, it will be built because it involves everyone. It makes sense for the city, local business leaders, children and their moms.
Grant is the chairman of the advancement committee for AquaJax.