‘We’re the Ocean State and we don’t even have an aquarium,” said Victor Moffitt, Coventry businessman and former three-term State Representative at his tax and investment office last week.
That is an oft-repeated refrain Moffitt began uttering after visiting Georgia Aquarium, then the world’s largest aquarium, five years ago. And when he ran for Governor of Rhode Island in 2010, building an aquarium became a cornerstone message of his campaign.
Now as Chairman and President of newly-incorporated Oceans Aquarium Research & Science Center- a non-profit, tax-exempt organization- Moffitt and his 15-member board are already primed to move the project into a facility phase.
“We are just a few weeks away from holding a statewide press conference to make a major announcement,” Moffitt said as he showed the design plans. ‘Our goal is to build a world-class aquarium. It will be done in two phases and we plan to complete construction in three to five years.”
The site of the Oceans Aquarium Research & Science Center facility will be a familiar one: the former G-Tech corporate campus headquarters in West Greenwich. After leasing some space there for a few years, Moffitt says plans are for OARSC to negotiate a 10-year lease on the entire 93,000 square feet from Condyne, owner of the property.
“We looked at possible locations everywhere from downtown Providence to Pawtucket, Portsmouth, Rhode Island Mall in Warwick, all along Narragansett Bay, Quonset and East Providence, “he said.
But this location, where tens of thousands of motorists and out-of-state tourists pass by daily, was finally too hard to ignore for several reasons. “We would not have to do a lot of renovations at first or find a place to build a new building,” he said.
When finished, the OARSC facility will not only have more combined tank capacity than any other aquarium in the region; its combined capacity, Moffitt says, will rival or exceed most of the largest aquariums in the world, including Georgia.
“Our goal is to build five large oblong tanks of one to two million gallons each, representing the five oceans of the world. Another tank inside will be a figure-8 shark tank and I am not aware of any tank designed like that ever being built for an aquarium. It will add up to 10 million gallons.”
When all three floors are completed, it will be a showcase facility, Moffitt promises. Other features will incorporate interactive science exhibits and touch screens, research labs, marine hospital and hatchery, traveling exhibits, computer labs, cafes, gift shop and a theatre, among others.
“I just purchased one of the largest coral exhibits in the country from a collector in Portsmouth,” he said, pointing out specimens in this rare display. “And I also bought a 750-gallon tank.” Those will be installed in Phase One of what will be first be a research and science center with a smaller aquarium and other exhibits slated to begin in October of this year.
Activity will pick up as they enter Phase Two. A 40- to 50 foot screen showing remote sensing images of Narragansett Bay will be installed to keep visitors in touch with the marine environment of the Ocean State.
The second floor will be devoted to alternative energy, such as wave technology and solar energy. Wind and solar energy are planned to be used to power some of the facility and water will be recycled.
On the third floor will be 20 research labs, an interactive children’s play and learning center.
There will also be Wi-Fi connectivity areas and administrative offices.
The major attraction- the five large scalloped-shell tanks that will loom large and high on the highway horizon - will showcase fish and aquatic life specific to the oceans each will represent.
“We want to create a whole new generation of young scientists from RI,” Moffitt said. ‘We want them to be the new Bob Ballards (explorer of the Titanic) and Mike Lombardis of the future.”
Moffitt is not concerned about the projected price tag of $100 million. “I have already received verbal commitments from several businesses to be sponsors,” he said. “We will have sponsorships for businesses and individuals starting from $1,000 and up. For $70,000, a business can have a café named for them. There are a lot of opportunities for people and business to donate (tax-deductible) money and volunteer time.”
‘This will be a way to create a lot of jobs,” he said. “It will have a huge impact for a state this small. We will employ 125 people at the aquarium and there could be as many as 500-600 more jobs for people in hotels and restaurants that could be built in the area. It will be for the betterment of Rhode Island.”
An impressive coalition of professional business people, scientists and local citizens has been assembled for the OARSC Board of Directors. Besides Victor, other Coventry citizens on the Board include Treasurer Bertha Moffitt, his wife and office manager; daughter, Mary Quackenbush, Scott Crowe, owner of , Michael Plante, Vice-Chair; taxidermist Normand Wolf and Executive Director Patrick Sharkey.
“Patrick Sharkey worked at SeaWorld in San Diego, Moody Gardens in Galveston, TX and was curator at Roger Williams Zoo,” said Moffitt.
Our new Marketing Director is Martha Trainor and she was the former global marketing director for APC Corp and worked for a large PR Company in Boston.
We have an Explorer-in-Residence, Mike Lombardi, a diver who’s worked for National Geographic.”
Scott Crowe will be the Aquarium Manager, in charge of maintaining all the aquariums.”
Moffitt says much of the OARSC research on the ocean will center on what he calls “the twilight zone. From 100 to 600 feet down is one of the least explored parts of the ocean.”
Education will be a primary focus. “We want to be the source for people with saltwater aquariums and for anyone who is passionate about saltwater fish.”
“We are going to work cooperatively with Mystic Aquarium, New England Aquarium, Hartford Science Center and other science centers,” he said.
“We plan to partner with Brown, URI and other colleges and institutions,’ he continued. “We want to offer chances for internships and research opportunities and projects.”
Moffitt has few critical words about the “naysayers” on his zealous mission to establish an aquarium. Instead, he is excited about the role this aquarium could play when it is completed.
And Moffitt has a child-like twinkle in his eyes as he talks about his passion for the Ocean State and for the aquarium he wants to share with RI citizens and visitors alike.
Indeed, part of the mission statement says: “Our unique facility will combine the wonder of aquariums, the discovery of science and research and joy of child play.”
“This will be a year-round destination that’s right off Rt. 95 and will attract a lot of tourists,” he said. “They can stop by for a couple of hours and not have to go far out of their way while they are traveling. And prices will be reasonable. The top ticket price will be $14.99 and that’s a lot less than many other aquariums.”
Scott's Crowebar will sponsor a fundraiser and information session about OARSC on Saturday, February 18, starting at 7 p.m.
Another OARSC fundraiser- A Polar Plunge- is scheduled for Feb. 25, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Colt State Park in Bristol.
For more information, go to www.OceansAquarium.org, call (401) 381-0005 or fax (401) 823-1896.