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Marine project reels in a deal

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About 8,000 fish and marine mammals need land in Salt Lake City, and this week they found it — for a low, low price.

The city's Redevelopment Agency, in a unanimous vote, opted to buy 4.8 acres on 500 West at 400 South expressly for the Living Planet Aquarium, a 90,000-square-foot complex to be completed in 2005. The RDA will pay close to $3.8 million for the parcel and lease it to the aquarium for a nominal amount: between $1 and $50 a year. The specific terms of the lease have yet to be negotiated.

Living Planet Aquarium president Brent Andersen has spent three years raising money and looking for a site. He initially devised a plan to build it at Pioneer Park, but the Salt Lake City Council spurned that idea last year, saying the city needed to preserve its open space. Members also expressed skepticism about the aquarium's future viability.

Now, apparently, the city is no longer nervous about investing in the project. The purchase price of the west-side land is steep, acknowledged RDA board member Roger Thompson, and there's no guarantee that Andersen will find the rest of the money to make the aquarium happen. So far the aquarium's board of directors has raised $2 million of the projected $69 million it will take to make the million-gallon plan a reality.

But "if the feasibility studies don't pan out, then we will just sell the land, which will continue to get more valuable," Thompson said. But "we want to give the (Living Planet planners) a chance to try it," and "without this (purchase), I don't think they could have" continued to raise funds.

The aquarium project is a key piece of the west-side development puzzle, Thompson added. "This is what the RDA is about: trying to get economic development going."

Construction of the city's intermodal transit center will start next year a few blocks from the aquarium site. The sprawling Gateway shopping center with its adjacent condominiums, plus 650 other new housing units, are expected to nourish a western Salt Lake renaissance. The new Hansen Planetarium and Children's Museum of Utah will be part of the Gateway project, and the Boyer Co. is close to signing a contract with the House of Blues to put one of its concert hall-restaurants in the Union Pacific Depot nearby.

Andersen rounded up several Living Planet Aquarium board members to attend this week's RDA meeting. Get moving, RDA board member and City Councilman Van Turner told them. "The ball is in your court. Now you've got to raise that money . . . we don't want to see you back here asking for more."

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com