A North Carolina House bill recently filed to obtain funding for the expansion of the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher would allow the aquarium to stay relevant in the community and continue to provide a quality experience for guests, said Hap Fatzinger, aquarium director.
House Bill 461, filed by Rep. Ted Davis Jr. (R-New Hanover), seeks to appropriate $10 million for the $20 million Fort Fisher expansion project.
According to the bill, the other half would be obtained from a capital campaign by the N.C. Aquarium Society and through admission receipts.
“We have identified that we need to continually update and refresh the experiences that we provide,” said Fatzinger about why the aquarium is seeking to expand. “We need to refresh the visitor experience. We need to create some new opportunities to engage our visitors, and we need to change the way that we're telling the stories of the North Carolina Aquariums.”
The bill states that the Fort Fisher aquarium is the most popular in the state and provides an important educational service for the community.
The growth of the aquarium, according to the bill, can be seen through its usage over the years:
- 493,303 visitors in 2018
- 25,000 N.C. schools hosted annually
- 120,000 participants in its educational programs, camps and field trips
- 505 volunteers who contributed 32,000 hours of service in 2018
The last time the aquarium had renovations was in 2002, when it underwent a $17.5 million project that grew the aquarium from 32,000 square feet to 92,000 square feet. The 40-year-old structure has had 6.4 million visitors since 2002.
Plans for the expansions are still in the design phase, said Fatzinger.
“We have engaged for about the last year and a half with some really good exhibit and aquarium design architecture firms to try to determine what the best renovation features would be,” Fatzinger said. “We do know that one of the enhancements to the facility would be a focus on our shark conservation work. We also know that being able to tell our story of how we impact and interact with saving animals in the wild is a really important message.”
While initial stages of the expansion project are underway, officials don’t yet have a timeline for when construction might start.
“We know that even if we secure funding appropriations from the state, we're still several years out in the planning and generating additional revenues to support the project,” Fatzinger said. “So, we are a couple of years out and we still have a lot of planning and work ahead of us to get to the point that we feel comfortable engaging in a contract and moving forward with the work.”
Fatzinger said Davis has been a longtime supporter of the North Carolina Aquariums and officials at the Fort Fisher aquarium feel fortunate to receive support from elected officials who see the value that the aquarium provides to residents and tourists.
Davis noted in an email that House Bill 461 will hopefully be addressed later in the budget process.
“I think this renovation will give us the opportunity to better embrace our community, to make the improvements and adjustments necessary for the growth of New Hanover County and to help us prepare better for what that looks like,” Fatzinger said. “Wilmington and the surrounding areas have shown us such great support over the years and we feel that this is an opportunity to give back to our communities by creating a renovated facility that not only creates more of a foundation for tourism in our area but also gives our local residents something to be extremely proud of.”