The Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport is scheduled to open to the public this Saturday, August 29th on the 15th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The newest attraction on the Gulf Coast is situated along Highway 90 just east of Highway 49 across from Gulfport’s small craft harbor. The nearly $100 million project has been under construction since 2018 when then-Governor Phil Bryant joined with state and Coast leaders to announce what Mayor Billy Hewes now calls “a jewel in Mississippi.”
Driving by the location today visitors would never know that the site was destroyed by Katrina in 2015, leaving behind a large blighted area in the heart of Downtown Gulfport. With the construction of the aquarium, Mayor Hewes told Y’all Politics on Wednesday that neighboring properties are now being revitalized and the city is seeing a rise in property values as a result of the investment, even before it officially opens.
“We’re counting on this being a catalyst from an economic development standpoint,” Hewes said, adding that he believes this attraction will have a generational impact not only in Gulfport, but along the Coast and across the state. Hewes said he and those involved are committed to ensuring that the dollars spent to bring this facility to life have a real, tangible return on investment for years to come.
The grand opening this weekend is the culmination of what Hewes calls the “largest public/private partnership in Mississippi’s history.”
Funds for the aquarium have come through a targeted “P4” effort, Mayor Hewes said, including dollars appropriated from the Legislature in terms of state bonds, BP funding, and other sources within state and federal government. Local dollars, both from the city and through private donors, have also been key to achieving the goal.
“It’s the best collaborative effort I’ve ever seen,” Hewes, a former state senator, said. “It’s been an 8 year process. We’ve had the state help us. We’ve had federal help. We’ve had local investment and philanthropic. People talk about a P3; this is a P4 – public/private/philanthropic partnership.”
Hewes gave Y’all Politics an exclusive pre-opening tour of the state’s aquarium, highlighting every aspect of the 80,000 square foot facility.
The aquarium is a “brown to blue water experience,” starting first with outdoor exhibits featuring alligators, snapping turtles, dolphins, and other marine life found along the Coast. There is an aviary where visitors can walk through and see unique birds first hand.
The Mississippi Coast line is depicted in the “shores of Mississippi” exhibit that can be seen as you stroll down the outdoor boardwalk and long the river that runs through the site.
Visitors will even be able to see otters and the occasional penguin playing in the South Mississippi sun.
Inside the main facility, the experience begins atop of the main tank where you can see down through clear blue waters, catching a glimpse of stingrays and schools of colorful fish. Youngsters can get a hands-on feel for coast marine life in the touch pool, and watch as workers feed and care for the aquarium’s stars.
As you wind around the inner corridors, holographic images displayed all around you make visitors feel as if you are under the sea swimming with the fish. You will find everything from sharks to eels swimming over their heads and under their feet as you walk through the 360 degree glass corridor.
And if you are feeling spry and want to suit up, you can get wet and dive in to the main tank exhibit for an up close and personal look.
Also coming soon is a mobile “submarine” to explore. The converted RV will be a marketing tool to increase awareness, bringing the story of Mississippi’s aquarium to an event near you.
Mayor Hewes says this type of enhancement is unprecedented, noting that it took local and state leaders getting on board to make this happen for Mississippi.
“Governor Bryant bought into the vision,” Hewes said. “Governor Reeves has, and state officials like Speaker Gunn, Lt. Governor Hosemann. It runs the gamut. And our local and state delegation they’ve been real helpful.”
The Mayor wants every Mississippian to know that “it’s everybody’s aquarium.”
“We’ve all got a stake in it, and we’ve all got a reason to be very proud,” Hewes said. “So come enjoy for a lifetime.”
To learn more about the Mississippi Aquarium or to purchase tickets, visit their website here.