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Can Kansas City support two large aquariums?

Kansas City has been talking about an aquarium for about as long as light rail.

The train hasn’t yet arrived, but we could find ourselves up to our gills in fish.

Sea Life opens this weekend with 260,000 gallons of exhibits at Crown Center.

That does not scare off a developer who plans a bigger and, he says, better aquarium just a few minutes away in Mission. It was first suggested in 2007, but the site remains vacant today and financing is uncertain.

Fully aware of the potential compeititon, the owners of the Sea Life franchise made a business decision to invest here. Mendy Rose, marketing manager for Sea Life in Kansas City, said the Mission project has been talked about for years while Kansas City still waited for an aquarium.

“They’re having meetings and we were putting water in our tanks,” Rose said of the Mission Gateway promoters.

Tom Valenti, the developer of the Mission Gateway mixed-use project, said this week that he welcomed Sea Life.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of energy and interest to the region,” he said. “But there’s a difference between the two aquariums. Ours is 2.5 million gallons and theirs is like a tenth of the size.”

Observers are left to wonder if there is enough demand to see seahorses and sharks for two aquariums to survive here.

Rick Hughes, president and chief executive of the Kansas City Convention and Visitors Association, said Sea Life will get a boost from its Crown Center location because it offers other reasons to draw tourists. But, he said, a Mission aquarium may find its own market.

“Hopefully, more is merrier,” Hughes said.

There is precedent elsewhere. Dallas has a World Aquarium and a Children’s Aquarium, and there is a Sea Life aquarium in suburban Grapevine.

Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., boasts four aquariums, including a large, interactive one similar to Sea Life as well as others that focus more on research, animal rehabilitation and education.

“We all have different niche markets,” said Emily Stehle, spokeswoman for The Pier Aquarium in St. Petersburg. “We partner with all the other aquariums. We know each other and work with each other.”

But Stehle acknowledged that was unusual.

“I haven’t heard of too many cities having more than one aquarium within an hour of each other,” she said.

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington is the country’s fourth largest metropolitan area with 6.4 million people. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater is the 19th largest, with 2.8 million people — and the Gulf of Mexico.

Kansas City is the 29th largest metro, with 2 million people.

A dream deferred

Boosters here have been dreaming about an aquarium for decades, but up to now, no was able to make it work financially.

An aquarium was envisioned as part of the redevelopment of the Missouri Riverfront when gambling was approved in 1993. A Friends of the Aquarium group tried for years to fire up interest there. Other proposals envisioned aquariums in the West Bottoms or along the Kansas River in western Shawnee.

A task force that included three former mayors of Kansas City tried to revive interest in a riverfront aquarium in 2000. In 2004, a Kansas City Zoo master plan penciled one in. The Kansas City Economic Development Council solicited project teams in 2008, and Union Station even expressed interest.

Merlin Entertainments, the company that owns the Legoland and Sea Life attractions around the world, approached Olathe and then Lee’s Summit with the idea of building amusement parks with public assistance, but deals could not be reached.

Then last year Merlin and Crown Center announced agreements to build both a Sea Life aquarium and an adjacent Legoland attraction. The company considers this a midway approach, instead of a full amusement park, that can offer two- to three-hour family experiences within walking distance of two Crown Center hotels.

The projects are $15 million each and are paid for entirely with private dollars.

The Mission Gateway project, at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe Avenue, is on the site of the former Mission Center Mall. Valenti, principal of the Cameron Group LLC, intended to break ground in 2008 on a retail-office-residential-entertainment and hotel redevelopment.

With the addition of an aquarium, the project received authorization for $63.2 million in STAR bonds, which would allow new sales taxes to be used to help pay for the development. But the recession interfered with those plans.

Late last year, Wal-Mart signed a letter of intent to move to the Mission site from its Roeland Park location. Revisions to the plan mean the STAR bonds application must be resubmitted. Roeland Park officials, unhappy at the prospect of losing revenue from Wal-Mart, have filed a protest, arguing the tax incentives should not be used at the expense of a neighboring Kansas town.

Valenti said a revised application would be filed this spring. A decision by the state Commerce secretary could come 60 to 90 days after that. Valenti said his aquarium could open in spring 2014.

Room for two?

The Kansas Aquarium would be developed by a Texas company called U.S. Aquarium, which has one in Guam. Plans call for the Mission project to be a three-story aquarium, variously described as between 70,000 and 90,000 square feet. Valenti said it will include a dive center where people can take lessons while swimming with fish. Promoters say the aquarium could draw 650,000 visitors a year.

Sea Life at Crown Center has a total of about 28,000 square feet of public space on one level with a maintenance area on the second floor. Its goal is to draw 250,000 visitors a year.

The Kansas Aquarium is envisioned to have tunnels so visitors can experience sharks and other creatures above and around them. Sea Life also has tunnels, as well as special areas for kids to explore and a touch tank with starfish and urchins.

Valenti and Erik Pedersen, president of U.S. Aquarium, say their attraction will be more of an educational experience while Sea Life caters mostly to children.

But Sea Life officials say their aquarium, too, is aimed for families and all ages. Its displays feature more than 5,000 creatures of several hundred species.

“We’re not the biggest aquarium you’re going to see,” Rose acknowledged. “We don’t sell ourselves as the Shedd (Aquarium) in Chicago. But ours is immersive and entertaining. It’s educational in small, digestible bits along the way.”

Being a private company, Sea Life will not seek accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But Displays Curator Aaron Sprowl said Sea Life follows that organization’s standards.

Not having mammals, Sea Life is not subject to inspections from the Department of Agriculture, as are zoos. But Sprowl said the company has its own veterinarians and certified aquarists. It also has an investment interest in keeping its animals healthy.

Both Sea Life and the Kansas Aquarium hope to draw visitors from around the region. But there is competition out there.

St. Louis has aquariums with sharks and rays in its City Museum as well as at the Saint Louis Zoo. On Thursday, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha opened a renovated aquarium with new displays and a 450,000-gallon shark reef. The Oklahoma City Zoo also has an aquatic exhibit with more than 200 species, including sharks.

The really big aquariums are farther away. The venerable Shedd in Chicago attracts about 2 million visitors a year. Its Oceanarium, with beluga whales, has 3 million gallons. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has more than 35,000 creatures and an open sea exhibit. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, billed as the world’s largest, has more than 10 million gallons.

Locally, officials at both Sea Life and the proposed Kansas Aquarium are pleasant regarding each other, if somewhat wary.

“It’s definitely something we’ll keep on the radar,” Rose said of the potential competition. “Kansas City would benefit from as many good and wonderful attractions as we can get. But we’re up and running and ready for business.”

Valenti noted that Kansas City has more than one example of other types of cultural attractions.

“There’s the Nelson and the Kemper,” he said, referring to the art galleries. “There’s the zoo and the Deanna Rose Farmstead. There’s the Kauffman Center and the Repertory Theatre. We think that the two aquariums are going to thrive.”

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