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Aquarium hopes to build in Sandy

SANDY — After ditching plans for a Salt Lake City spot, the Living Planet Aquarium is not looking far for a permanent home — it wants to stay in Sandy.

Although plans are still preliminary, aquarium officials and Sandy leaders are talking about finding a location in the south valley city, one to replace the temporary exhibit at 725 E. 10600 South. While plans have been scaled down, the new $15 million price tag is more appetizing for public officials to handle and possible pledge public dollars.

"I think it's more feasible than it was the first time I heard the numbers," Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan said. "I think the aquarium is something that is an asset to any community. It's a matter of funding in the future, how large and how much."

Now Sandy is entertaining the idea of giving public dollars to the project.

"I think if they get a piece of land and work on raising private funds, it could go along with public funds," said Bryant Anderson, City Council chairman.

"You're talking to the guy that received a phone call one day and was asked to go on a tour (of the aquarium) and didn't want to go.

But I was pretty impressed," said Anderson, who takes his grandkids there. "I'm a big supporter of it."

Whether those funds would be from state or city dollars or even both, it's still too early to pinpoint. Aquarium leaders have already met with Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to discuss legislative funding.

What's making the aquarium more palatable is a new "phased" construction plan. Phase 1 will be a $9 million 50,000-square-foot space. Phase 2 will cost $6 million and be 30,000 square feet. It will span more than three acres.

"It's not the shark tunnel, but it will be many times better than what we have now," said Brent Andersen, aquarium chairman and founder. "The shark tank that we have right now is at 15,000 gallons. If we did a phased approach, while we wouldn't have a 300,000-400,000-gallon shark tank, we would still have something along the lines of a 115,000-gallon shark tank, which is 10 times as big as the one we have now."

The aquarium was originally pursuing a $34.5 million bond from Salt Lake County for a world-class, 90,000-square-foot exhibit spanning five acres. The plan was to build at 336 S. 400 West in Salt Lake City, on land owned by the city's redevelopment agency that has been preserved for the aquarium expansion for years.

County leaders shot down the bond in November 2006. Aquarium leaders were going to take a second shot at the bond in time for the November 2007 election, but troubles with aquarium management began boiling in early 2007. Ten of the aquarium's 12 board members resigned amid a police-launched investigation of a former employee accused of stealing thousands of dollars from the nonprofit organization.

In April, the board was revamped and decided to no longer pursue the bond or the Salt Lake spot. Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson was vocally unsupportive of the project, and the Salt Lake County Council was not going to approve a bond amid rumors of bad aquarium management.

Sandy, however, maintained its support. And that interest — particularly from Dolan — has paid off for both the city and aquarium.

The city has only given the project a one-time grant of $30,000 in 2006 to relocate the temporary exhibit from The Gateway in Salt Lake City to the Sandy spot. And already, in a year and a half since opening there, the aquarium has achieved huge success.

Guest numbers nearly doubled. That first year, 220,000 came through the door, 26,000 memberships were purchased and a family of four spent an average of $30. Some 7 percent to 8 percent of guests were out-of-state tourists — and the aquarium does zero out-of-state marketing. The board just approved a $2.5 million 2008 budget. More employees have also been hired to account for the growth.

"The feasibility here has been settled. No questions about it," said Andersen, trying to quash rumors that an aquarium in the desert would never be successful. "We've had phenomenal growth."

Brad Carroll, board chairman, said the board will have to vote on pursuing a Sandy location. Earlier in the year, they were hoping to find any Salt Lake County spot, but the numbers at Sandy have been so large that "within the board, there is a consensus that Sandy will be the right home for the aquarium."

"By doubling the size of even the preview exhibit, we predict that we could reach half a million visitors," he added. "The location is the big variable. And the location is Sandy."

Once the board votes on pursuing a Sandy location, Carroll hopes Sandy will then pledge its support by passing a resolution.

"We hope that Sandy city will take a serious position in helping us to identify land and funding of some sort," he said. "We hope there are funding mechanisms that are a combination of both private and public sector."

Carroll said individuals and corporations who donate want to see "who jumps into the pool first" before giving money.

"It's my hope that once Sandy makes that commitment, that the pool opens, that they will donate," he said.

Dolan said he will not move forward without the City Council's 100 percent approval. The council is helping to look for land. They have suggested looking at the 136 acres surrounding the Real site.

An aquarium building campaign will launch fairly shortly, looking for private donations and public funds.

A new chief financial officer and marketing director have been hired to help with the campaign, Carroll said. And, to make sure there are no problems with the new board, the board has all signed the Utah Non-Profit Associations code of ethics — something the former board never wanted to do, Carroll said.

"We feel that the hard part is behind us. From a philosophical point of view, sometimes disasters can actually become opportunities. Our organization is stronger now than ever before, and we have a more diverse and talented board than ever before."

The Living Planet Aquarium has already opened a cafe on-site, is displaying newly hatched trout and has 50 percent of a coral reef exhibit funded — officials are looking for a matching grant of $20,000.