MASSILLON: A company led by two Walsh University graduates is proposing to build a $52 million indoor aquarium and waterpark with a retractable dome on city-owned property along U.S. Route 30.
The 120,000-square-foot facility, which also would house a convention center, restaurants and a brewery, would focus on education and conservation.
It could attract as many as a half-million visitors in its first year, according to its developer, Hammond Aqualife.
The as-yet unnamed complex would be the first attraction of its kind in the Americas and is modeled after successful aquarium/waterparks elsewhere in the world, operations manager Rex Ferguson told Massillon City Council on Thursday.
The city is considering leasing a 22-acre portion of the Legends of Massillon golf course to the company. The proposed lease would be for 30 years at $10 a year.
Hammond Aqualife, which was incorporated last year in Colorado and is led by Fidel Junco of Round Rock, Texas, says it has private financing lined up and could open late this year or early next year. The developer said it is not seeking any other government-supported funding or tax breaks.
“This is a wonderful opportunity that has come to the city of Massillon, and we need to give it our full attention and welcome them into our community,” Mayor Kathy Catazaro-Perry said after Thursday morning’s meeting. “The economic impact is amazing. ... This is going to be great for our families.”
The city, which has entertained ideas for such ventures as a minor-league hockey team and Indian casino in recent years, will hold a town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lillian Beane Center on 16th Street Southeast to hear from the public.
Ferguson said the company often is asked why it is looking at Stark County.
“My first response is, ‘Why not?’ ” he said.
The project initially was supposed to be built in Austin, Texas, he said, but investors thought that market was “over recreationalized.”
In addition to Massillon — most well-known nationwide for its obsession with high school football — they looked at other sites in Stark and Summit counties, including Canton, Jackson Township and Green.
The complex would feature a 2-million gallon aquarium and marine exhibits. There would be both fresh and saltwater, with the giant aquarium having separations to keep some species away from each other.
The aquarium would have a nonprofit component with a focus on education and conservation, said Ferguson, who met Junco at Walsh University in North Canton.
The waterpark would feature the usual amenities, such as slides and a wave pool, surrounded by a tropical landscape with live plants like palm trees from Florida. It would include a dome that could be opened in warm weather and closed during colder months.
The aquarium/waterpark would be a boon for tourism, Ferguson said, attracting visitors from as far as six hours away. The business plan says the number of visitors could grow to 800,000 to 950,000 by the fifth year.
The facility would employ 75 to 100 workers, he said.
Hammond Aqualife offered no artist’s renderings of its building nor design, and few specific details about the facility itself during the meeting, leaving some residents who attended less than impressed with the presentation.
Ferguson provided some additional details following the meeting.
He also described Junco as “one of the most prominent members in the world community of aqualife, aquariums and ventures that deal with maintaining health, quality education of marine and aqualife all over the world.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Silver Spring, Md., and the Austin Aquarium in Texas did not immediately recognize his name. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Switzerland couldn’t be reached for comment.
Company spokesman Robb First said afterward that Junco, who lived in Navarre for a while, has designed 10 aquariums in Europe and Australia and worked behind the scenes. He could not immediately say which aquariums.
The project also includes Christopher Milo of Wadsworth, a pianist and speaker who sports a giant mohawk.
The World Waterpark Association in Overland, Kan., was unfamiliar with the Massillon project.
But Aleatha Ezra, director of park membership development for the group, said combined aquariums and waterparks such as Sea World Gold Coast Australia, Adventure Cove Waterpark in Singapore and Atlantis The Palm in Dubai have been successful.
“It definitely sounds like a destination development,” she said.
The Massillon council meeting was standing-room only, with many people who live near the Legends in attendance to complain about a giant dome potentially coming to their residential neighborhood. Many questioned the rationale for a low-cost lease, complained about the potential increase in traffic and asked that the project be shifted elsewhere in the city.
They also worried that Massillon, which the state auditor has placed in fiscal emergency, will have to invest too much money to upgrade roads and its water system and redesign the golf course, which has 27 holes now, for the project.
“I don’t want us to get sold another bill of goods and fail in another venture,” resident Joseph Bleau said to the council. “I ask you to take the time. Do the research. Make sure that people like me, marketers, are not telling you something that is not going to be lived up to. ... Do your homework.”
Some residents, though, dismissed the complaints of those living in the area, believing they just don’t want the attraction in their backyard.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” Jerry Luckner, 53, of Massillon said during a stop at the Sunoco gas station on Wales Road Northeast. “We need more things to bring people into the community.”
Station owner Sunil Sangar, 45, of Massillon agreed.
The aquarium/waterpark would be a family destination and would be a Stark County attraction besides the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton, he said.
“We really want it,” Sangar said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or email@example.com.