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Designers Unveil Plans for Harbor Aquarium

Attractions: Tanks, tide pools and teaching would focus on Santa Barbara Channel. Bonds would pay majority of $30-million cost.


Designers unveiled their vision for a waterfront aquarium and marine learning center for Ventura Harbor on Wednesday, saying its value to local schools and its focus on the Santa Barbara Channel's unique environment make it an attractive alternative to bigger West Coast rivals.

The two-story Channel Islands Marine Learning Center and Aquarium would house more than 1 million gallons of water in indoor glass tanks filled with kelp forests, a small pier and a sea cave. Visitors could get face to face with sharks, pulsating jellyfish and squid, and a giant mola mola fish.

Outside would be tide pools, a marsh and shorebirds. Next door, schoolchildren could study marine creatures and learn about Chumash Indian history at the Environmental and Cultural Education Center. The whole complex would be built in the same shipboard and pitched-green-roof motif of the adjacent Channel Islands National Park headquarters at the end of Spinnaker Drive.

Touch-screen computers would provide information for all ages. Video feeds from Channel Islands National Park would broadcast live images of underwater research, island flora and fauna, and marine mammals to a theater screen, said John Cahill, chief promoter of the project and executive director of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Channel Foundation, which promotes ocean awareness.

"It's one of the most remarkable marine ecosystems in America," Cahill said. "We want to use aquarium exhibits to help the public understand how important that body of water is."

The aquarium, which would be about one-tenth the size of the one at Monterey Bay, would be "a little big aquarium," said architect David Sargent of the Ventura-based Civitas design firm. It would be the biggest marine education center between Long Beach and Monterey, minus a big price tag and overhead.

Though it has been long contemplated, officials Wednesday released the most detailed description yet of what the $30-million center might look like. Designs were unveiled at a news conference at Channel Islands National Park headquarters Wednesday to coincide with the launch of the Sustainable Seas Expeditions, a two-week research project by the federal government and the National Geographic Society at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

"This is on a fast track," said Ventura Councilman Sandy Smith. "We are very committed to making it happen."


On Monday, the Ventura City Council directed city staff to begin work on a memorandum of understanding that outlines responsibilities for the city, the Santa Barbara Foundation, the National Park Service and the Ventura Port District necessary to complete the project. Smith said the city has allocated about $100,000 for a traffic and planning study for the facility.

Ventura County schoolteachers have worked with officials at Channel Islands National Park on plans for the educational center. The waters around the park's archipelago host an extraordinarily diverse set of species because of a confluence of cool currents flowing from the Gulf of Alaska and warm waters flowing north from Baja California.

Backers believe that groundbreaking for the aquarium could begin late next year with an opening perhaps in 2002. The first phase of the aquarium, which includes a 32,000-square-foot building, fish tanks and displays, would cost $25 million. Three-quarters of the revenue would come from the sale of private lease-revenue bonds, Cahill said, which would be repaid by charging visitors admission. The rest of the funds probably would come from corporate sponsors not yet identified. The total cost to complete the remaining two phases of the aquarium, including outside grounds, is unknown, he added.


Meanwhile, the educational center, which is smaller and less complicated, could be opened sooner at a cost of about $5 million. The National Park Service and the foundation would own and operate that facility.

Cahill projects an average attendance for the aquarium of 500,000 visitors annually. The adult admission price would probably be $8 or $9, he said. About 3.2 million people live within 50 miles of the proposed aquarium, and its success depends on attracting local visitors rather than luring tourists from around the United States.

The aquarium was first proposed for Santa Barbara, but the foundation withdrew its plan there after opposition from local business groups. City officials there said their financial analysis showed the foundation's projections for attendance were inflated. No other aquarium proposal in the area has proceeded this far.

Local officials view the aquarium center as a crucial component to revitalize Ventura Harbor and boost its appeal as a regional attraction. Channel Islands National Park headquarters, which reports that it attracts about 300,000 visitors annually to its interpretive center at the site, is seen as a centerpiece of those plans. Private partnerships are important as the harbor district struggles to repay a bankruptcy debt structured over the next three decades.

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