Mississippi is about to begin construction on what state leaders hope is the next big boost to the state tourism industry.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the Mississippi Aquarium on Friday was the latest step in a process that began nearly four years ago when plans were first developed for the project that will sit on 5.8 acres in Gulfport and feature more than 80,000 square feet of exhibits.

Friday’s outdoor ceremony at 15th Street and 21st Avenue featured Gov. Phil Bryant, Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes and other city, state and federal representatives, including U.S. Congressman Steven Palazzo.

Bryant, a longtime supporter of the aquarium, highlighted in his speech the benefits of boosting Mississippi’s tourism industry and revenue through legacy projects like the aquarium and other tourist attractions around the state, such as the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; The Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian; the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland.

The planning process for the Mississippi Aquarium began around late 2014 and the structure is slated to open either late 2019 or early 2020.

Bryant signed off on a revenue bond bill during the 2015 legislative session that authorized $12 million in funding to the Mississippi Development Authority to support the Mississippi Aquarium. But MDA is not managing the project, said its senior public relations specialist, Jim Beaugez.

The governor was also present when the city unveiled the aquarium’s design to the general public in 2016.

“(This is) one big opportunity for us all,” Bryant said Friday. ” … There will be opportunities for education, for making sure we provide the research that we will need to make sure we protect our land, water and air. We don’t need anybody from Washington D.C. telling us how to protect our land, water and air.”

The aquarium, slated to go up at 2100 E. Beach Blvd., in Gulfport, is expected to attract 487,000 people per year on average and help bring in $340 million in annual revenue for the Gulfport region, according to its website.

About 100 people attended Friday’s event, which marked the start of the aquarium’s vertical construction and the official reveal of aquarium renderings to the public. The Mississippi Aquarium will be spread through four buildings, with an outdoor exhibit as the anchor.

Aquarium exhibits will include animals such as river fish, shorebirds and alligators, according to the aquarium website. It will also include more than 50 different species of non-toxic plants, organizers said.

The aquarium’s total estimated design and construction budget — including animals, startup and land costs — is $93 million. Hurricane Katrina destroyed Gulfport’s privately owned Marine Life aquarium, aquarium officials said.

Hewes said the majority of project funding is coming from state, city and BP funds. The city has guaranteed more than $30 million into the project, he said.

The state agreed to issue $24.5 million in bonds and $17.5 million more will come from BP oil-catastrophe money.

“Gov. Bryant has embraced this project from the start, looking for legacy projects that could have a lasting impact” Hewes said. “We asked for a total of $40 million. (We got $24.5 million.) We think that is a reasonable ask and I believe they are going to come through.”

Construction was first estimated to start in spring 2017, with planning that called for the aquarium to be stocked with animals in the fall of 2018 and opened to the public in early 2019. However, bids were delayed until Oct. 2017.

“With the types of investments we’re getting from the BP settlement, the state and the city, we have to get this right,” Hewes said. “If it took a little more time, that was the smart thing to do because this is going to be impacting generations for years to come.”

David Kimmel, president and CEO of the Mississippi Aquarium, expects the aquarium to be self-supporting and debt-free, or close to it, when it opens, according to a Sun Herald report.

He said the aquarium helps improve the area’s education, conservation and community, rather than just putting the $93 million just toward environmental restoration along the coast.

“You have to teach people how important (environmental restoration) is,” Kimmel said. “You have to show them what they’re affecting when they throw their trash in the ocean, when they throw it in the Gulf, when we’re eating fish that have small particles of plastic in it because we didn’t recycle properly. We’re going to impact a lot more people.”

The University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University will serve as aquarium partners. USM will conduct saltwater research and education, while Mississippi State will provide veterinary services with educational opportunities and freshwater research.

Fiscal year 2016 brought 23 million people to Mississippi and $6.3 billion in revenue, according to the Mississippi Tourism Association. Travel and tourism is our fourth-largest private sector employer in the state, the association says.

Kimmel also touted additional development in the Gulfport area, such as a Hyatt Place hotel, Centennial Plaza and a new restaurant Patio 44.

“I’m being told by some other folks that there are other developers that are right now reconsidering Gulfport for development because of what this aquarium is going to do for the Gulf Coast,” Kimmel said.

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