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S.L. may get preview exhibit of aquarium

Proponents hope to open it by the end of this year

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Holiday shoppers may get the first sampling of a proposed aquarium in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Living Planet Aquarium plans to open a "preview exhibit" at The Gateway shopping mall by the end of the year, provided organizers can raise the final $90,000 needed to construct the project, President Brent Andersen said.

Ideally, the exhibit will show the general public what to expect when the aquarium opens while also demonstrating to potential donors what their money will fund.

The exhibit will include a fresh-water stream with fish native to the Rocky Mountains, a salt-water tank with ocean fish and eels, and a 14,000-gallon shark tank.

"This will allow us to raise the awareness of the aquarium," Andersen said.

Once the final $90,000 of the $270,000 is raised, construction will begin in leased space at the north end of The Gateway. To help reach that goal as soon as possible, Andersen told the Salt Lake County Council any assistance from local governments, although not expected, would be very helpful.

"Ideally, we would like it (government involvement)," he said. "But with the tight budgets and the economy, we won't count on it, just as we don't count on specific private money."

Andersen said the plan for the Living Planet Aquarium was hatched five years ago, and he is expecting another five years of fund raising before the full aquarium opens at 522 S. 400 West. The goal is to open without any debt obligations, which is what successful aquariums in places like Chattanooga, Tenn., have done. He said it would take about $62 million to open the aquarium.

Councilman Jim Bradley suggested that Andersen formally request money from the council, which would then "seriously consider it." He also complimented the aquarium group's fund-raising efforts, which have been successful despite two concurrent capital campaigns — for a new children's museum at The Gateway and a science center at Library Square.

"There is some genuine skepticism about where the cash for these projects will come from," Bradley said. "I'm absolutely delighted that you've got some community support. It would be a delightful addition to our community."

Councilman Marvin Hendrickson, however, said he continues to have questions about the estimated costs and the source of funding.

"Little did I know, until I started this job, that when you start talking in the millions of dollars instead of thousands, the costs go up even more quickly," he said. "With all of the organizations looking to do great things for society, I have some hesitancy about the funds being available."

E-MAIL: jloftin@desnews.com