Gardner’s Basin attracts twice as many visitors as it did little more than a decade ago, despite minimal investment in the waterfront destination.
But now the basin — and the non-profit that has overseen its steady growth — are looking for a major $8 million investment in the Atlantic City Aquarium to double the facility’s size and add a 200,000 gallon tank worthy of a trip to the city’s inlet.
“People, they’re looking for a really big thing. That’s the primary motivation,” said Jack Keith, executive director of the aquarium.
Keith presented the aquarium project plans Tuesday to City Council’s Planning and Development Committee as part of the Atlantic City Aquarium and Historic Gardner’s Basin Expansion and Improvement plan.
The aquarium is the centerpiece of an overall improvement and expansion plan already under way at Gardner’s Basin. The city, which owns the site and leases it to managing nonprofit Atlantic City Historical Waterfront Organization, has already restored the nearby seawall. Officials expect to install lighting there this week and by fall pave a parking lot to add 100 spaces to the 200 available now.
Located on the north end of Absecon Island, Gardner’s Basin is far less visible and accessible than the city’s Boardwalk. But it offers views of the ocean and marine life that cannot be found elsewhere. Fishing boats pass within feet of the docks and seawall as they return with their catch. Sightseeing boats leave daily, and there is a lively restaurant scene from morning to evening. Small shops line a small marina there, which hosts numerous festivals each year.
“The effort we’re making right now is part of a coordinated plan between organization and city about what Gardner’s will be in five years,” Keith said. “The important thing is to have in place is a master plan for the property because there are a lot of smaller things that will happen first, and we need to make sure all of these elements are coordinated together.”
Since the aquarium opened in 1999, annual visits have grown from 40,000 to 90,000 in 2011, according to the Historical Waterfront Organization.
The new tank likely would help continue that trend. Although its 200,000-gallon capacity would be less than one-third of the 760,000-gallon main tank at the New Jersey State Aquarium on the Camden waterfront, it’s eight times as large as the current tank in Atlantic City. The National Aquarium in Baltimore — a key aspect of the Inner Harbor’s redevelopment — has a slightly bigger 225,000-gallon shark tank.
A bigger tank means much bigger, more exotic and exciting marine life, said Keith, who also heads the Historical Waterfront Organization. Local leaders founded the nonprofit in 1978, when Atlantic City struggling — as now — to reinvent itself and reverse socioeconomic decline.
The proposal has supporters on City Council, although it’s clear the money, if it comes, will have to be casino reinvestment dollars, not city funding.
“(The city is) pretty strapped financially, but I don’t see why the CRDA wouldn’t look at funding this project with the specific purpose of brining in more families, as well as that area falling within the tourism district,” said Councilman Frank Gilliam, who chairs Council’s Planning and Development committee.
City Council must approve the plan through a resolution. Once that happens, Keith expects to make even a bigger pitch to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which now oversees development in the city’s tourism districts, including Gardner’s Basin.
Although CRDA officials seemed noncommittal, the Atlantic City Tourism District Master Plan calls for investment in the aquarium and Gardner’s Basin during the next six years or so.
Released in April, the Tourism District Master Plan suggests bringing a larger marine science center that also would be open to visitors. The center would help make the harborside enclave a hub for wildlife research that would double as a tourist attraction and fit with the alternative energy research and industry recommended by the Master Plan for non-gambling related development in the resort.
The plan also suggests relocating the Brigantine Mammal Stranding Center to the waterfront area as part of the marine science development, although Center founder Bob Schoelkopf said he hasn’t talked seriously about moving the facility for nearly a decade.
Details aside, Keith believes improvements such as those would do wonders for Gardner’s Basin.
Gilliam said he last visited the aquarium for a fundraising event in 2011 and said the appearances was nice, but there was room for improvement.
“Hopefully this will make it more of a year-round attraction as opposed to a more seasonal attraction, and encourage more families to come to Gardner’s Basin. Anything we can do to spruce up any part of the town, particularly waterfront (areas) — that can only enhance tourism and locals taking advantage of more amenities.”
Merchant Cheryl Allen agreed. Allen, who lives across the harbor in the city’s Bungalow Park section, opened the marine-themed craft shop Allen & Johnson six years ago.
“We feel this is really a gem — the last bit (of the city) that’s not casinos,” Allen said. “For families that come looking for something else to do if they have children, the potential here is great.”
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