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Florida Aquarium thinks it has right stuff

When you've seen one fish, have you seen them all?

Is it possible that the boom in aquariums is too much of a good thing?

Absolutely not, says John Racanelli, president of the Florida Aquarium, Tampa's multimillion-dollar effort to make the city a destination for tourists and residents alike.

The only aquarium in the country financed completely with public debt, the Florida Aquarium must make enough money each year to cover operating expenses and $7.4-million in debt payments on an $84-million bond ultimately backed by taxpayers. It is counting on 1.6-million people to visit the attraction annually to raise most of that money.

When it opens in March, the glass-domed aquarium will tell the story of Florida's diverse aquatic life, from its freshwater aquifers to the open ocean.

And that's what makes it different from the other 26 major aquariums in the country, says Racanelli.

"It's all about how truly unique you are, because that's what will make people come," he said. "The regional aquarium has higher potential for success than a so-called cosmopolitan aquarium . . . because a regional one is unique."

Whereas typical cosmopolitan aquariums, such as Baltimore's National Aquarium and Chicago's John G. Shedd Aquarium, display awide range of water life, including whales and dolphins, the Florida Aquarium is one of a new breedthat focuses on a local story to teach visitors about the environment and their role in it.

It is patterned after California's successful Monterey Bay Aquarium, which focuses on the marine life of the bay after which it is named. Similarly, the Tennessee Aquarium, which recently opened in the unlikely city of Chattanooga, is solely dedicated to the state's freshwater river system.

The regional focus is what differentiates aquariums, no matter how many someone may have been to before, Racanelli says.

But it is possible, he adds, to have too many aquariums too close together, especially if they are similar. The New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden is too close to Baltimore, particularly since Camden strayed from its original mission of focusing on the local story, Racanelli says.

The competing plans to build marine attractions in the same town in South Carolina are not good omens. "South Carolina is heading for trouble," Racanelli said.

So, then, what about the $40-million New World Aquarium being planned in Fort Lauderdale?

Not only is it in the same state, but, according to its executive director, Sherri Kimbel, it also will be "a tour through Florida's waterway system. Does that sound familiar to you?"

Very.

Yet neither Racanelli nor Kimbel seems fazed by the prospect of another aquarium some 250 miles away.

Indeed, the city of Fort Lauderdale, which is well aware of the Florida Aquarium, has donated land and is planning to issue a $15-million bond backed by the aquarium's revenues. The project has raised $8-million privately, Kimbel said.

"Florida's got 13-million residents and 40-million visitors and there are people who visit the east coast and the west coast. Our tourist projections don't even touch the east coast, although we would love to attract them," Racanelli said.

"It's a far drive," Kimbel said. "It's almost two different states."

The Fort Lauderdale aquarium has been in the works for about four years as part of the city's efforts to lure family visitors instead of college students on spring break.

Nearby Palm Beach scrapped plans to build an aquarium because Fort Lauderdale's was further along in the planning and city officials realized the area could not support two, according to Kimbel.

The New World Aquarium is still several years away from reality, however.

Kimbel said architects will be selected by the end of the year and, if all goes well, ground will be broken in late 1995 or early '96. That means it probably will not open until sometime in early 1998.

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