Spokane Journal of Business

Riverfront Park aquarium idea floated

Developers of facilities in Boise, Portland area would like to build in Spokane

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Two Idaho-based brothers who have developed aquariums in Boise and near Portland are interested in developing one in Spokane, possibly at Riverfront Park.

However, one of the brothers, Ammon Covino, says they and an investment group backing the proposal have put it on hold until it gets more feedback from city leaders. He says the group approached Spokane officials about a year ago with the idea of developing an aquarium here, with a vacant building on the east side of the Pavilion in Riverfront Park as a possible site.

"We looked at the Pavilion and several other locations," Covino says. "Right now, it's one of the locations we've considered, but we don't have a lease. We don't have a building. We've only talked to the city to see if they'd be interested in us building an aquarium."

Meanwhile, Spokane Parks & Recreation Director Leroy Eadie says he traveled Jan. 17 to tour the group's recently opened Portland Aquarium, in Milwaukie, Ore., as part of a request presented earlier in January to a Riverfront Park committee made up of Spokane Park Board members.

Spokane-based commercial real estate brokerage NAI Black suggested that Park Board representatives visit the Portland Aquarium before dismissing an aquarium option in Riverfront Park's future plan. NAI Black also has another recreation project idea for the park, but didn't disclose details about it, a committee report says.

Eadie says he spent part of one day getting a tour of the Portland Aquarium, and travelled there with Jeff K. Johnson, president of Black Commercial Inc., which is part of the Spokane-based NAI Black commercial real estate brokerage.

Asked about the trip, Eadie says, "They did something we think makes sense to recommend to the Park Board for Riverfront Park. Right now, we haven't made any decision. It's very much in the investigation phase."

He adds, "The first question is, does it make sense for Riverfront Park and its future?"

Many years ago, the vacant building space on the east side of the Pavilion that the aquarium group looked at housed a display using actors who told Spokane's story, Eadie says. He says an aquarium, if the Park Board decides to include the idea in future plans, also might be part of future private-public partnerships on park property along the north bank of Spokane River.

NAI Black's Johnson says businesses have approached the brokerage about operating in or near Riverfront Park, as planning is under way by the Park Board for the park's master plan. In July, the Spokane Park Board approved a first phase of a Riverfront Park master plan that includes initial concepts for the park's future use and potential upgrades. The Park Board is working to firm up details as part of a second phase of the master plan, and potentially to present a bond measure for infrastructure improvements that's expected to go before voters by November 2014.

"I think the big picture is the parks department is working on its master plan and looking at different options for the future of the park," Johnson says. "We have a number of businesses that are interested in the park's new master plan and a potential location in or near the park."

Johnson says that along with the aquarium proposal, the brokerage has heard from another recreation business he declines to identify.

"We do have another recreation-oriented business that again would like to be located near or in Riverfront Park, if it fits into the Park Board's master plan," he says. "It would be an activity that would cater to family and kids, and they're looking for a location."

The Portland Aquarium is a for-profit venture that opened in December inside of a renovated 11,000-square-foot former steak restaurant. Ammon Covino, along with brother Vince Covino, also developed the Idaho Aquarium, which opened in December 2011 in Boise as a nonprofit entity.

Both aquariums offer a number of hands-on interactive touch tanks and educational exhibits with marine life. Covino says whether a Spokane model would be a nonprofit or for-profit venture depends on the response from city leaders here, if they're interested in an aquarium.

"We're interested in an aquarium somewhere down the road, but without city approval, we won't take another step," he says. "We spent a lot of time and money researching it. The last time we were there, they told us it would take six months to a year to get it approved."

Additionally, he says the group is in the process of developing aquariums at three other locations that he declines to disclose.

"That will happen before Spokane," he says. "We want to build in Spokane."

Eadie says about the Portland Aquarium, "I was impressed that in a short time, they'd made a number of improvements. Not all of the displays were open yet, but they're running about 1,500 customers through a day on weekdays and something like 2,300 on a weekend day."

Eadie adds, though, that having adequate parking for such a facility also would have to be a major consideration for any aquarium concept here.

Treva Lind
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