The South Carolina Aquarium is looking to make a big splash over the next 10 years.
The waterfront tourist attraction unveiled a $68.5 million master plan Thursday to transform the 11-year-old attraction into a more visible, more inviting and more interactive venue.
Exhibits and other facets in the four-story structure on Charleston Harbor will be moved around or eliminated, making room for new displays, such as a lemur exhibit coming in March.
Others possible new features include building a massive new shark tank with an underwater viewing tunnel, and moving the sea turtle hospital to an area where visitors can see animal care firsthand.
Some of the proposed features won't require a ticket purchase. Those include a harbor-view cafe and gift shop near the entrance to maximize revenue and increase use of the facility.
Officials also are talking with the National Park Service about making changes to the federal agency's Liberty Square, which fronts the aquarium, and creating a more inviting link to Concord Street.
The outside of the building could change as well. A glass-like pavilion is proposed to project across the expanse of the front exterior, while different architectural elements that could add a changing visual feature to the facade are under consideration as well.
Admission prices will not increase to pay for the plan, said Kevin Mills, the attraction's chief executive. But he didn't rule out higher fees if operating costs go up over the next decade.
Funding for the project will come from private contributions and from individual donors, corporations and foundations, Mills said.
It probably will be a year or so before the first phase of the plan gets underway, but aquarium officials believe the changes are necessary to keep the attraction new and exciting.
Through increasing attendance and popular exhibits such as penguins and an albino alligator, last year the facility paid off the remainder of the $69 million cost to construct the building, which opened in 2000.
"Now that we have satisfied our obligations to our debt and are in a sound financial position, it is only natural to look to our future," Mills said. "This plan gives us the opportunity to build upon the best of what we already do and to more fully engage our public in our mission of conservation and education."
Ideally, the changes would be completed in phases, partly because of the cost and partly to avoid having to close the attraction, said consultant Peter Kuttner, president of Massachusetts-based Cambridge Seven Associates,
"You want to stay open," Kuttner said. "It is better to have a new reason to go to the aquarium every one or two years."
Exactly which changes will take place first have not been finalized, but it could entail moving the gift shop to the 4-D theater near the entrance and adding the cafe overlooking the harbor, he said.
The theater would be moved to another floor.
Another thought is to first move the sea turtle hospital to the first level where the Camp Carolina exhibit currently stands because that could be done internally without any additional permitting requirements.
What comes first could depend on available funding, disruption to services and donors' preference, Kuttner said.
"There is a domino effect once we start," Mills said.
Suggested new features in the S.C. Aquarium's master plan include: