KURE BEACH — One of southeastern North Carolina’s most popular attractions could celebrate its 50th anniversary as a newly renovated facility in 2026. The Fort Fisher Aquarium has $30-million plans to expand, starting construction in 2024.
In 2019, the state appropriated $5 million to the renovation project. The state budget, passed in November, appropriated an additional $10 million through the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Aquarium director Hap Fatzinger said staff plans to request an additional $10 million from the legislature and raise the remainder privately through a capital campaign.
“We only receive about 45% of our operating expenses from legislative support, so we’re responsible for raising funds to support the aquarium,” he said.
The location is on track to average roughly $4 million in revenues admissions, special activities and rentals.
The aquarium opened its doors in 1976 as a marine science center and went through renovations in 2002 to expand its facility from 32,000 to 92,000 square feet. It hasn’t sustained any rehab in a decade, but the 10 million visitors it has served since 2002 have added to wear and tear on the infrastructure.
“How we designed a facility for the public in the late ‘90s is very different than how we would design a facility now,” Fatzinger said. “Understanding our needs, being more accessible and inclusive to our community, is really important to us.”
For example, many tanks and exhibits are at eye level for the average 5-and-a-half-foot adult, Fatzinger said; however, this makes viewing difficult for children and the disabled population. Lowering the tanks and viewing windows, or creating ramps for ease of view, is on the list of upgrades.
Fatzinger said the aquarium is looking to add another 20,000 square feet, mostly onto its marine building. Close to 500,000 people experience the exhibits and programs at the aquarium annually, and with the pandemic changing people’s habits it’s hard to predict that future trend, he added.
Due to Covid, Fort Fisher was closed to the public from March to September 2020, losing roughly $2.5 million in revenue. The Fort Fisher location is one of four owned by the state. Its sister facilities include Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, which joined the group much later, in 2011.
The aquarium implemented an online-only reservation system during Covid, to maintain admissions. Fatzinger said it allows staff to regulate the flow of visitors and is still in place today.
While still in the design phases, Fort Fisher Aquarium has a list of projects in the works to create a more engaging environment. That includes doing a better job at telling its story of conservation through more educational programming, live animal presentations and upgrading signage and technology.
“You can have as much text on a wall as you want, but you lose 90% of people or more,” Fatzinger explained. “Very few people stand and read that, so how can we more effectively engage?”
Pre-Covid, the plan was to incorporate more technology and touch screens, but Fatzinger fears people are now facing “screen fatigue.” To test the theory, the aquarium will install a number of touchscreen monitors by summer to gauge the effectiveness.
The aquarium’s current 235,000-gallon tank — with 250 different animals, including sharks, fish and turtles — will be converted into the largest tank in the state. A brand new 350,000-gallon tank is slated to be installed.
The Caribbean coral reef tank, currently a couple hundred gallons, will transition into an 8,000-gallon version to educate visitors on the vast destruction live coral reefs face .
To maintain operations during construction, the aquarium will have to increase staffing from its 51 full-time positions. It’s unclear by how much.
Currently, the aquarium has roughly 40 temporary positions to assist with maintenance and upkeep. Pre-Covid, more than 500 volunteers contributed 400,000 hours annually to the aquarium’s operations. In the last 12 months, 239 volunteers have offered up 11,052 hours.
“It’s a real challenge for us to compete with other businesses who are able to pay a lot more for our temporary positions,” Fatzinger said.
Staff will be needed after-hours, as the expansion plan includes adding a four-story wing off the building for event space, educational classrooms and additional programming. The aquarium typically hosts 150 events annually and more than 25,000 school children. Fatzinger expects that number to rise significantly with added space.
The goal is to begin phased renovations, to keep portions open to the public, after the peak summer months in 2024 and reopen in 2026.
“However, there are a huge number of factors that control the construction dates and what we hope for and what is actual are too challenging to forecast at this time,” Fatzinger said.
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