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Two years later and aquarium project remains in limbo

D’IBERVILLE — Two years after ground was broken for Ocean Expo Aquarium along Interstate 10, the lot remains vacant and the lease between the city and aquarium developer Moby Solangi has expired.

The attraction that was forecast to draw a million visitors a year when it opened in 2014 still exists only on paper, and the city and Solangi are in a standoff.

In August, after the lease expired, the mayor and City Council gave Solangi, the executive director of Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, a deadline of March 2014 to start construction of Ocean Expo or abandon plans for the D’Iberville site.

“We’ve heard nothing,” city manager Bobby Eleuterius said.

Solangi said in an email to the Sun Herald, “We are still waiting on D’Iberville to advise us on the status of their commitments for land and saltwater pipeline to support the Ocean Expo project, and other infrastructure issues.”

According to the expired agreement, D’Iberville would provide additional land for parking and a 1.25-mile pipeline to bring salt water from the Back Bay to the aquarium, along with other infrastructure.

“We plan to meet with D’Iberville in the very near future and discuss with them all the outstanding issues,” Solangi said.

Eleuterius said the city will not spend $4 million more without some commitment from Solangi.

Ocean Expo already has cost D’Iberville millions, as well as the public embarrassment of having former city manager Michael Janus indicted last week on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the federal government, fraud, bribery, two counts of money laundering and accepting bribes in connection with a $3-million grant to help pay the city’s expenses for Ocean Expo.

D’Iberville taxpayers had to cover the $318,668 first payment on a $4 million special-obligation bond due in September, and face a $320,668 payment next year.

The city issued the bond to cover part of the cost of the 8½ acres of land for Ocean Expo, purchased from Ramco Development for about $9.5 million. The bond was set up so an additional charge on top of the admission price to Ocean Expo would cover the payment.

However, Solangi announced at the groundbreaking in December 2011 the aquarium would open in 2014. That left D’Iberville responsible for the first bond payment because there wouldn’t be a ticket surcharge to cover the note.

The cost of the aquarium was estimated at the groundbreaking at $30 million for the land and construction in Phase I, with an additional $50 million to $60 million planned for Phase II.

D’Iberville agreed to pay $16 million for land and infrastructure and Solangi said IMMS would pick up $18 million — 80 percent of which would be federal money.

The key attractions were to be dolphin and sea lion shows, a rainforest exhibit, touch pools, a theater and a children’s water-play area.

The aquarium site is adjacent to the million-square-foot Gulf Coast Galleria shopping center and hotel that is expected begin construction in early 2014.

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