Family donates $14 million toward aquarium project


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The aquarium would be located on undeveloped land south of State Road 528 on the south side of the port. The port signed a letter of intent for the development agreement with the zoo, under which the port would provide up to $3.5 million in infrastructure improvements benefiting the Banana River-area parcel on which the aquarium would be located.

Adam Palumbo

A Central Florida family has agreed to donate $14 million to help the Brevard Zoo’s dream of developing and building an aquarium.

The $70 to $100 million aquarium project could open as early as fall 2022 on a 14-acre site at Port Canaveral, according to Keith Winsten, the Brevard Zoo’s executive director.

Winsten declined to identify the family making the donation, but plans to release it soon.

Previously, the zoo received a financial commitment totaling $10 million from Brevard County for the aquarium project, through revenue generated by the county's 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals.

The aquarium would focus on conservation of the Indian River Lagoon’s natural features, as well as tell the stories of the region's history, including space launches, sport fishing, shrimping, beaches, the port and other factors related to the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Johns River.

“We think this will help us reach critical mass in terms of tourism opportunities in Brevard County, said Winsten in a video interview with the Viera Voice.

The aquarium would be located on undeveloped land south of State Road 528 on the south side of the port. The port signed a letter of intent for the development agreement with the zoo, under which the port would provide up to $3.5 million in infrastructure improvements benefiting the Banana River-area parcel on which the aquarium would be located. This would include improvements to George King Boulevard, an extension of water and sewer lines, and stormwater connections.

“We imagine the aquarium to be a part of the Brevard Zoo family and managed by the same group . . .  but offer a completely different experience,” Winsten continued. “It will up our ability to connect with people and bring tourists here.”

Under the agreement, the rent the zoo would pay the port to lease the property would be on a sliding scale, based on annual paid attendance figures for the aquarium.

Winsten said the zoo is preparing to kick off its private fundraising efforts for the aquarium project. The plan calls for having three categories of funding for the aquarium:

• $20 million in private individual and corporate contributions, including the $14 million gift. Winsten said this donation was not solicited by the zoo. He said the family decided to make the donation after reading news stories about the project.

• $20 million in public funding, including the $10 million from Tourist Development Tax revenue.

• $30 million through financing, based on future anticipated revenue from aquarium admission fees.

Winsten said he expects the aquarium to attract 525,000 to 690,000 visitors a year, about 60 percent of them tourists. (In comparison, the Brevard Zoo's 2018 attendance was 489,710, including its Treetop Trek attraction.)

“We are excited about this project because we think it’s one of the most exciting things to come to Brevard County in a long time,” he said.

Winsten said the aquarium would have an estimated economic impact of $70 to $80 million a year. It would be responsible for 900 direct and spinoff jobs, when the aquarium operations are combined with the impact of the extended stays of visitors to the Space Coast. The aquarium itself would have the equivalent of 65 to 70 full-time employees.

But one of the most important things Winsten said he saw since the Brevard Zoo opened 25 years ago was the “community pride” that comes from bringing something here that is “world class and unique.”

Winsten said the aquarium would support the third leg of Space Coast tourism — nature tourism — as it adds to the existing major attractions of the beaches and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Plans call for the aquarium to have 60,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space and 70,000 square feet of outdoor exhibit space, including a 40,000-square-foot “water park” play area. There will be boardwalk and kayak access to the Banana River, and a rooftop function space that would offer views of rocket launches and cruise ships.

Additionally, Winsten said the aquarium complex would have a 15,000-square-foot "conservation hub," where researchers from Florida Tech, the University of Central Florida and other universities would share collaborative workspaces and join forces with students and local residents to tackle Indian River Lagoon-related problems.

“One of the things people love about the Brevard Zoo is that we are completely independent,” he said. “We’re not part of any local government. We are a private, not-for-profit organization that is managed by the people of Brevard for the people of Central Florida.”

Winsten said the aquarium project will follow the economic model that has made the Brevard Zoo so profitable and successful.

“One of the things we know, if we build this aquarium, they will come. The aquarium will run in the black from Day One and will actually generate lots of money for our conservation programs, including a healthy Indian River Lagoon,” he continued. “So this is a way to generate back and take care of our water bodies and preserve what we love about living in Central Florida.”

The aquarium would have an admission price —  based on the value of 2018 dollars — of $24.95 for adults, $19.95 for children 3 to 11, and free for children under 3.

Winsten said at least $1 from every paid admission will go toward Indian River Lagoon-related conservation programs.