If One Spark is about provocative ideas; if it offers Northeast Florida a seductive surfeit of intelligent, creative, dynamic people in a concentrated space, great conversation about our future and inspiration for tinkerers and dreamers; if it’s about lighting a spark Downtown toward a better tomorrow, then perhaps the sparkiest of One Spark ideas is this: a tsunami-sized ambition to build a state-of-the-art aquarium on the St. Johns River waterfront.

All it will take is vision and money. 

Lots of money.

AquaJax president George Harrell says his group will raise $100-$125 million from private investors and corporations to build a 150,000-square-foot aquatic edifice on the Northbank Riverwalk between the vacant Shipyards property and Metropolitan Park. With that kind of money, Harrell says, AquaJax can build an aquarium with a distinctive architectural profile that will change the Jacksonville skyline.

The core message of sustainability and conservation will be reflected in a building that is a model of sustainability, Harrell says. The aquarium’s narrative will present the rich and diverse marine ecosystems that surround Jacksonville and the web of marine life that lives there — in the St. Johns River, in the salt marshes of the Timucuan Preserve and along the Atlantic Ocean coastline. The aquarium will educate the public on those ecosystems, provide research opportunities for marine biologists from area universities and build understanding of and sensitivity to Northeast Florida’s abundant natural resources.

The biggest thing it will do, though, is bring people Downtown. And if done right, Harrell says, the new aquarium will do for Downtown what The National Aquarium did for Baltimore, the Tennessee Aquarium did for Chattanooga and the Texas State Aquarium did for Corpus Christi: turned them into destinations.

“It would totally transform Downtown Jacksonville,” he says.

The perfect setting is already there, he adds. “We have prime real estate that so many cities would just be so envious of, right on the river, that is just totally unused.”

AquaJax has approached City Hall about leasing five acres of Metro Park on the Northbank Riverwalk. The 23-acre park is used for sprawling events like the annual World of Nations Celebration, boat shows and outdoor music concerts, including Welcome to Rockville later this month. But most of the time, it’s empty.

“Place an aquarium next to Metropolitan Park or on it,” Harrell says, “and it will get a lot of use.”

Aquarium visitors would create an instant audience for events in the park and turn Northbank Riverwalk into a promenade, he continues. They’d stay in our hotels and eat in our restaurants.

Marketed well and packaged along with Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens — Harrell imagines eco-tours connecting the venues — AquaJax believes some of those people who now hurtle down I-95 to Miami or Orlando would take the Jacksonville exit to visit our aquarium.

Harrell points to the Iowa town of Dubuque, population 58,155. Not exactly a place that would make any list of top tourist destinations. And yet Dubuque attracted more than 1.8 million tourists in 2011, according to its Chamber of Commerce. Tourism officials attribute much of that to the presence of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. If it worked in Dubuque, he argues, surely it can work here, too.

Jacksonville might be forgiven for skepticism of big-bucks ideas that promise a big bang for Downtown, for wondering if this is just another promised savior: We’ve already seen the $230 million River City Renaissance, which gave us a new City Hall, renovated a football stadium and built the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, but also demolished the historic black business and residential community of LaVilla and displaced its residents for a recreational complex that never materialized; and the 2000 Better Jacksonville Plan, which built a new main library, the new county courthouse, Veterans Memorial Arena and the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. 

These big-idea projects worked, but they remain disconnected from each other, and didn’t trigger the ever-elusive Downtown rebirth.

Would an aquarium set among the giant structures of EverBank Field, the Baseball Grounds and the arena just add yet another disconnected entertainment silo?

Our collective skepticism is well-earned, but there’s reason to think this time could be different. Really.

The Equation

After a career as a newspaper advertising executive in London, Glasgow, Philadelphia and New York City, George Harrell knows how to sell an idea. He’s enthusiastic. He’s positive. He’s energetic. He pounces if he senses uncertainty. And he’s damn certain a big, new aquarium will bring Jacksonville back to life.

Harrell, 72, grew up in Gainesville, where his father was the founding dean of the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. The family had a vacation house in Ponte Vedra. He visited Jacksonville often. He loved Downtown, and thought Jacksonville and its location on the St. Johns River afforded it Great American City potential. He later watched Baltimore’s waterfront be reborn, and again thought back to Jacksonville. When he returned to Gainesville for his 25th high school reunion in 1987, he stopped in to see what was happening here. He was surprised. It looked pretty much the same, except for the “For Sale” signs and the sense that Downtown had been abandoned.

“I was shocked,” he says.

When he decided he’d had enough of a high-fueled Manhattan career that offered him little time for self or family, Harrell moved his family to Jacksonville in 1994. His began attending meetings on Downtown redevelopment. He watched money being spent. He saw plans conceived. But nothing seemed to change — not really, not enough.

Harrell grew frustrated: “Finally, I said to myself, ‘This is insane. What does this city have to do to revitalize Downtown? What single facility, what single venue would consistently bring high numbers of people to the city?’ ”

His answer: “Two things: Either a world-class aquarium or a large casino.” He laughs. “And a large casino ain’t going to happen in Jacksonville.”

His equation is simple: Downtown needs people. An aquarium draws people. Therefore, Downtown needs an aquarium. “You create numbers, and everything builds from that.”

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