KURE BEACH — In the midst of Sea Turtle Week, June 12 to 18, Gov. Roy Cooper fittingly was greeted by a box turtle crossing the parking lot at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher Wednesday. Cooper toured the crowded facility to witness firsthand what the aquarium offers the area, in terms of preservation and tourism.
He also learned the many ways extra funding could strengthen its mission and announced an additional $10 million will be given from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to help the aquarium’s current expansion.
“This aquarium says a lot about who we are as North Carolinians,” Cooper told a room of media and staff. “We believe in … being able to educate people about the wonderful environment in which we live.”
The $30-million aquarium expansion plan has been in the works for the last three years. In the state budget approved last fall, it received $10 million and was appropriated $5 million in 2019 also from the NC DNCR. The staff aims to raise $5 million more through a capital campaign. Right now, it’s still in the feasibility process and planning stage.
“We’re excited to grow our aquarium, create a more engaging, inclusive experience for all communities and we look forward to the future,” aquarium director Hap Fatzinger said.
In the past two decades since its last renovation, Fort Fisher Aquarium has welcomed more than 10 million visitors. The tourist destination opened its doors in 1976 as a marine science center and expanded its space in 2002 from 32,000 to 92,000 square feet. It hasn’t sustained any rehab since, but wear and tear has accumulated on the structure as 500,000 people visit the site annually.
“We feel pretty strongly now is the time to expand and enhance here,” Cooper said. “We want people to know the importance of the aquarium and make sure we fund this.”
The plan would add a four-story wing off the building for event space, educational classrooms and additional programming. Staff brainstormed a list of projects planned to make a more engaging, inclusive experience for visitors but hasn’t yet nailed down details.
The add-on of a rooftop deck will increase scenic views from the aquarium, which right now already stretch across the beaches. The renovation will incorporate solar panels in line with the aquariums’ clean energy goals.
Additional plans include lowering many of the fish tanks to be more accessible to children and the disabled population and increasing the size of some habitats. The aquarium’s current 235,000-gallon tank, home to 250 different species, will be converted into the largest tank in the state. A brand new 350,000-gallon tank will be installed in its place.
Work will be done in phases to ensure the aquarium stays open in portions to the public.
Tourists from both near and far are drawn to the attraction, funneling money into the local economy. The aquarium’s annual revenues for admission, programs and events equal roughly $4 million annually.
“We need to think about the economic impact of places like Fort Fisher Aquarium to North Carolina,” Cooper said. “Look at the parking lot and you’ll see license plates from people all over bringing dollars into our state.”
Plans are underway to start construction on the 20,000-square-foot expansion by 2024 for the completion to coincide with the aquarium’s 50th anniversary in 2026.
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