The plan to build a $130 million aquarium and learning center attraction in downtown Easton is continuing to move ahead.
And officials hope to have about $85 million of the funding in place by this time next year.
Lin Erickson, executive director and CEO of Da Vinci Science Center of Allentown, gave an update on the project’s planning and fundraising efforts to the Northampton County Community and Economic Development Committee at a meeting Thursday night.
The project, announced in November as Da Vinci Science City, calls for building a complex focused on education that includes a 500,000-gallon aquarium filled with sharks and other exotic sea animals, a major exhibit on the Delaware and Lehigh River watersheds, a massive 3-D theater and a science center.
The Easton project would comprise four buildings and complement Da Vinci’s other facility in Allentown.
The Da Vinci Science Center, a nonprofit, said it would move forward developing and testing a master plan for the proposed facility, followed by a marketing study partially funded by Northampton County. This would be followed by a third-party business plan to test and validate projected attendance and operating cost.
Erickson said the Da Vinci Science Center has secured, or is negotiations to secure, two-thirds of the $1.2 million needed to plan the project.
Easton is contributing $30 million of the $130 million project, said Mayor Sal Panto.
Erickson said there is strong interest from public and private sources to fund the totality of the project, with a fundraising goal to achieve 65 percent of the total project cost by this time next year.
“We have had some local entities, private and corporate, that have stepped forward with naming opportunities for different buildings,” Erickson said. “There’s definitely strong interest in naming opportunities. We are in the early stages of discussion.”
The project would be at the corner of South Third Street and Larry Holmes Drive now occupied by a Days Inn hotel. The city bought the property in December and plans to demolish the hotel, which remains open.
“The hotel is getting demolished in February or March, and we will make it surface parking in the interim,” Panto said.
The city is conducting a parking, guest validation and hotel study to see how many people would be attracted to the center each year, Panto said.
Preliminary estimates are that the center would draw 600,000 visitors per year, she said.
“Our tourism market is 15 million, just in the Lehigh Valley,” Erickson said.
A traffic study would need to be done, and the city may have to create an additional lane into the center, Panto said.
The earliest that construction could begin is 2019, which would be an aggressive schedule, Erickson said. Construction would take two years to complete, she added.
The next step is to engage architects for conceptual plans. The center has spoken to a number of firms, particularly those that have built aquariums.
“It’s my hope that when we get to the final design stage, we will have a local partner or a few, with a national firm,” Erickson said.
The same could be true for the construction firm, she added.
“I think that site is a great site for the Science City because it’s at the entrance to our city. It’s water-related, it’s on our waterfront,” Panto said. “We are extremely supportive although we have to proceed cautiously to make sure. … That’s why these studies are being done to validate the numbers.”
Erickson said Da Vinci Science Center chose Easton after evaluating other sites because it had the available site and land that would accommodate the center’s vision, the accessibility and tourism draw and the funding available from the city.
She described Science City as an unprecedented project for the Greater Lehigh Valley.
“It’s a great location. You are right at the border of New Jersey, you’ve got the Philly markets to the south,” Erickson said. “There’s great accessibility to the site. You’ve got incredible views of the Delaware and Lehigh River.”
Using an assessment complied by Educational Marketing Strategies that examined the feasibility of having multiple aquariums in close proximity, Erickson addressed concerns raised by county officials over the potential development of a for-profit aquarium in Monroe County.
According to the study, multiple aquariums can successfully operate within the same market or similar markets and noted further that the top 25 attended aquariums in the nation exist in close proximity to other aquariums.
“Our focus is very much education. It’s a different value proposition,” Erickson said in reference to a commercial versus nonprofit aquarium. “I think this is about making sure we have a distinct experience.”
Hopefully, people will go to both Easton’s facility and the one proposed for the Poconos, she said.