Aquarium Closing for 9 Months

Aquarium Closing for 9 Months The 15 sharks will keep swimming in their tank at the New Jersey State Aquarium, but for the next nine months there won't be school groups and other fish fans on the other side of the glass to watch them.

The aquarium is doubling in size, getting a new for-profit operator, landing a pair of hippopotami and being renamed. (The new name remains a secret.)

It will be closed for the next nine months as the work is completed.

When it opened in 1992 in a stretch of water font that was once the home of Campbell Soup and RCA, it was the first piece in the transformation of the area into a hub of tourist activity.

The $33 million expansion, partly funded by the state government, is being sold as a keystone in the completion of the waterfront redevelopment.

Columbus, Ohio-based Steiner + Associates will take over the operation of the aquarium from the nonprofit New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences. Steiner will be responsible for developing most of the land that remains on the waterfront.

Attractions and facilities now in place include a minor league baseball stadium, the Battleship New Jersey, a concert amphitheater, a children's garden, luxury apartments and the terminus of a new commuter rail line.

Future plans for the area call for restaurants, shops, more apartments, an IMAX theater and a museum devoted to the history of recorded sound.

And the fish are still being billed as a star attraction in the next phase of the waterfront renaissance.

Back when the aquarium opened, it featured mostly fish from waters off New Jersey, which tended to be gray and brown. The management gradually expanded the collection to include colorful species from around the world and African penguins -- decidedly un-Jersey creatures.

Attendance, which had fallen into the range of 450,000 per year, jumped in the past few years. In the 12 months that ended June 30, it was 620,000 -- the highest total since the aquarium's first full year.

"We existed out here as a pioneer for many years," said aquarium CEO Brian DuVall. "There have been changes in the last four or five years," and the aquarium has been operating in the black for the first time, he said.

With a for-profit company running things in the future, it's not only the addition of more fish that will change, said David Wechler, vice president of Steiner.

"It's not just a matter of putting fish in a tank and slapping a sign on it with a bunch of Latin," Wechler said.

Instead of a mission that combines entertainment and aquatic life research, the new management will be focus primarily on entertainment.

"It's all about getting people engaged," Wechler said.

The nonprofit group that has run the aquarium since the beginning will remain in existence and will provide education programs on a contract basis with the new operator.

That means that the Academy for Aquatic Science will become a much smaller operation -- one whose annual budget will shrink from $9 million to $1.5 million and its staff from more than 250 in the peak summer season to about a dozen.

Most of the workers who take care of fish are to be added immediately to Steiner's payroll, and others could be back once the aquarium is ready to reopen.

But in the meantime, around 200 workers will be without jobs. Most are seasonal workers who would be leaving leave at summer's end anyway or are part-timers.

The high school students from Camden and Pennsauken who are part of the Aquatic Science Academy's Camden Aquarium Urban Science Enrichment Program will continue to learn about marine life and help run after-school programs for younger Camden children.

But instead of serving as junior staff at the aquarium, they'll help out at Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum, the Palmyra Cove Nature Center and other nearby sites while the aquarium is shuttered.

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Author: NBC10/AP

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