A pair of coastal legislators are pushing for the North Carolina General Assembly to chip in $10 million to help expand the NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, located at Kure Beach in New Hanover County, south of Wilmington.

Representatives Pat McElraft, R-Emerald Isle, and Ted Davis Jr., R-Wilmington, are the primary sponsors of a bill that would appropriate $10 million from the 2019-20 state budget toward the project. This allocation represents 50 percent of the estimated total cost for the project.

To come up with the remainder of the funds, the “aquarium plans to raise $5 million through its capital campaign by the NC Aquarium Society and $5 million through admission receipts.” That’s a pretty sweet deal for state taxpayers.

Reps. McElraft and Davis said: “The Aquarium at Fort Fisher is the most popular of the state’s three aquariums and the most visited attraction in southeastern North Carolina, having 493,603 visitors in 2018.”

Truly, it is Fort Fisher’s turn. The facility opened in 1976 and its last capital renovation occurred in 2002.

“Refreshing the aquarium’s galleries and exhibits is needed to sustain the aquarium’s popularity and to better serve its educational mission,” added Reps. McElraft and Davis.

The NC Aquariums system is a unit of the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The other two aquarium sites are at Pine Knoll Shores here in Carteret County and on Roanoke Island in Manteo within Dare County. Also operating under the NC Aquariums’ umbrella is Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head on the Outer Banks, also in Dare County.

The state aquariums are helping educate North Carolinians of all ages to become dedicated environmental stewards. The aquariums’ “perennial popularity” makes them valuable assets for families, school students and teachers, youth organizations, church groups and civic clubs. The aquariums also serve as a tourism magnet, attracting visitors on a year-round basis, showcasing North Carolina’s diverse aquatic environments.

Indeed, North Carolina is fortunate to have three outstanding aquarium sites located strategically along the coast. The caliber of these destinations is greatly enhanced by the fine work of the NC Aquarium Society.

The society was formed in 1986 as a nonprofit (501(c)(3)) support organization to partner with the aquariums to raise funds from the private sector to make the “aquarium experience better and more enjoyable” by supporting aquarium priorities, such as new exhibits, animal acquisition, education programming and conservation initiatives.

Its new president is Jay Barnes, who previously served 20 years as the director of the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. He retired from that post in 2009 and was recruited by the society to become its development director. In November 2018, Barnes succeeded Neal Conoley, who retired as CEO of the society.

The organization could not have selected a more in-touch, in-tune leader than Jay Barnes. The General Assembly members can have total faith; Barnes will get the job done and done the right way. Guaranteed, the society will raise its $5 million commitment toward the Fort Fisher aquarium project in a jiffy.

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