State funding brings aquarium closer to $30 million expansion

The Fort Fisher Aquarium hopes to expand its facilities by 20,000 square feet, with a $30 million project. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

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 plans for a $30 million expansion million, whose construction will begin in 2024.

In 2019, the state allocated $5 million for the renovation project. The state budget, passed in November, allocated an additional $10 million through the Ministry of Natural and Cultural Resources. Aquarium director Hap Fatzinger said staff plan to seek an additional $10 million from the legislature and raise the rest privately through a fundraising campaign.

“We only receive about 45% of our operating expenses from legislative support, so we are responsible for fundraising to support the aquarium,” he said.

The location is on track to average about $4 million in revenue from admissions, special activities, and rentals.

The aquarium opened in 1976 as a marine science center and underwent renovations in 2002 to expand its facilities from 32,000 to 92,000 square feet. It has not undergone any rehabilitation for a decade, but the 10 million visitors it has served since 2002 have added to the wear and tear on the infrastructure.

“The way we designed an installation for the public in the late 90s is very different from the way we design an installation today,” 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 people with disabilities. Lowering tanks and viewing windows, or creating ramps for easier viewing, are on the list of improvements.

Fatzinger said the aquarium is looking to add an additional 20,000 square feet, primarily on its marine building. Nearly 500,000 people experience the aquarium’s exhibits and programs every year, and with the pandemic changing people’s habitats, it’s hard to predict this future trend, he added.

Due to Covid, Fort Fisher was closed to the public from March to September 2020, losing approximately $2.5 million in revenue. The Fort Fisher location is one of four state-owned. Its sister facilities include Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, which joined much later, in 2011.

The aquarium has implemented an online reservation system only 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, the Fort Fisher Aquarium has a slate of projects underway to create a more engaging environment. This includes doing a better job of telling its conservation story through more educational programs, live animal displays, and upgrading signage and technology.

“You can have as much text on a wall as you want, but you lose 90% of the people or more,” Fatzinger explained. “Very few people get up and read this, so how can we engage more effectively?”

Before Covid, the plan was to incorporate more technology and touchscreens, 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 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 should be installed.

The Caribbean Coral Reef Tank, currently a few hundred gallons, will be upgraded to an 8,000 gallon version to educate visitors about the vast destruction of living coral reefs.

To maintain operations during construction, the aquarium will need to increase its workforce from its 51 full-time positions. We don’t know by how much.

Currently, the aquarium has about 40 temporary positions to help with maintenance and upkeep. Prior to Covid, over 500 volunteers contributed 400,000 hours a year to aquarium operations. Over the past 12 months, 239 volunteers have contributed 11,052 hours.

“It’s a real challenge for us to compete with other companies that 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 a year and over 25,000 schoolchildren. Fatzinger expects that number to increase significantly with the additional space.

The aim is to begin phased renovations, keeping parts open to the public, past the peak of the summer months in 2024 and reopening in 2026.

“However, there are a lot of factors that control build dates and what we hope for and what is real is too difficult to predict at this time,” Fatzinger said.

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