Aquarium mulls several ideas

The South Carolina Aquarium added a four-dimensional 'immersion' theater in late 2009.

ALAN HAWES

Fresh off its first 10 years and now debt-free, the South Carolina Aquarium wants to keep making a splash over the next decade.

It's all conceptual, but consultants are offering some new ways that the waterfront attraction on peninsular Charleston can keep its head above water:

"It's the perfect time to position the aquarium to move forward," said Peter Kuttner, president of Massachusetts-based consulting firm Cambridge Seven Associates, during a presentation to Aquarium officials Tuesday night.

Aquarium Chief Executive Kevin Mills said the master plan ideas have to be digested first, but he expects some of the more feasible proposals ideas to be adopted within two to three years.

The plan doesn't have a price tag, he said.

"Once we ratify the vision, we will begin to put prices to paper," Mills said. "It will certainly be a phased development. We hope to get the low-hanging fruit first."

The aquarium recently announced its best attendance figures in five years. It paid off its debt last year.

But Kuttner, whose firm is being paid $200,000 for its role in the master-planning process, said the tourist attraction could be so much more.

One of the main problems with the nonprofit facility is its distance and lack of visibility from Concord Street, he said.

"When you get out of the garage, you almost can't see it," Kuttner said. "It seems like more of a barrier to get here."

He called the tree-lined green space of Liberty Square in front of the aquarium a "super restraint. It actually separates more than connects" the facility to Concord and the rest of the city.

To remedy that, he suggested a drop-off point directly in front of the aquarium where visitors would then walk along a winding nature trail amid water features, clustered plants and sculptures of animals.

"It would create a new front door," he said.

The National Park Service owns the green space in front of the facility, so any changes would have to be approved by it, aquarium spokesman Kevin Kampwerth said.

Kuttner also suggested that the winding path should lead to a new pavilion with lots of glass so visitors would feel a sense of openness as they approach the building.

By moving the retail store from the back side of the aquarium to a new addition at the entrance, Kuttner said shoppers could visit the store to increase sales without buying a ticket.

"In the past people were obsessed with 'unless they pay for a ticket, they don't get anything,' " he said.

The move also would open up space where the current gift shop is for other uses, such as a cafe where harbor views could be exploited.

Also suggested was the addition of a 600,000-gallon water tank over a reinforced loading dock to feature sharks and rays. It would be connected to the existing facility, and a glass tunnel would run beneath the exhibit to immerse visitors in the aquarium experience.

Each floor of the existing facility would undergo changes, with flexible exhibits, new features and a sense of connection throughout the aquarium.

Kuttner called the presentation a lot of ideas that might not come to fruition, but he said the vision plan will become a working document.

Think tank

Some of the other suggested new features that came out of the S.C. Aquarium's master-planning forum this week:

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.