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Duo set sights on huge Living Planet Aquarium for Utah

If we build it, says Steve Schulkens, they will come . . . as many as 1.1 million in the opening year alone.

He's talking about visitors to the Living Planet Aquarium, a $40 million fresh- and salt-water facility proposed for one of three sites in either Salt Lake or Utah counties that would display thousands of exotic fish - including 10-foot sharks - coral, reptiles, birds, insects and plant life from around the world and four of its oceans.It would include a 1-acre, glass-enclosed tropical rain forest; a rivers, lakes and streams exhibit; an oceans of the world display; and various other facilities. A second phase would include an Imax theater and an open ocean exhibit.

But don't expect to see any dolphins or killer whales jumping through hoops. Schulkens said there will be no mammals at the Living Planet Aquarium. "They're too hard to take care of, and there is some controversy over keeping them in captivity," he said.

The aquarium is the brainchild of Brent Andersen, president of The Living Planet Inc., based in Murray, and Schulkens, Living Planet executive vice president and former chief communications officer for the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.

The two men were making the rounds of local news media this week, trying to drum up publicity for the project as they also meet with various governmental and business people in their quest to fund the project that they term a "public/private partnership."

The public aspect stems from their attempts to persuade whichever county ends up housing the aquarium to issue $25 million in public bonds to help fund construction of the facility. They hope to fund the remaining $15 million in development costs from corporate and private donations.

The Living Planet, said Schulkens, would then operate the facility as a nonprofit entity catering to residents and tourists but with an emphasis on children's education and a research center for university programs.

If all goes as planned - they concede that's a very large "if" - construction on the 100,000 square foot facility would begin by late summer, and the complex would open in May 2002, just in time to rescue Utahns from the doldrums that many believe will beset the state following the Olympic Games in February of that year.

The three proposed sites include 18 acres near the Thanksgiving Point recreation complex in Lehi - Living Planet made proposals on the project to Lehi city officials last March - a site in the proposed Gateway District west of downtown Salt Lake City, and the Utah Fairpark.

The group has had an artist's rendering made depicting how the complex might look at the Lehi site. A pyramid depicted in the rendering would house the Amazon rain forest.

Andersen, a Utah native, and Schulkens have done their homework. They commissioned a $60,000 feasibility study, completed last month, by AMS Planning & Research, Petaluma, Calif. It says says the demographics and lifestyle of Wasatch Front residents are "very positive" for supporting a large aquarium.

"Only Temple Square, Lagoon and Hogle Zoo are of a magnitude similar to that proposed for The Living Planet," says the study.

Schulken said the aquarium would employ 200 to 300 staffers but would have a residual impact that could create as many as 1,500 new jobs with hotels, restaurants and other facilities that would be generated by the aquarium.

What are the chances of The Living Planet principals bringing their vision to fruition? Schulkens said they will give it everything they have to make it happen.