CONCORD Before you get to the 150,000 gallons of water and the 5,000 fish, you have to stick a shovel in 2 1/2 tons of sand.
The project to build a $10 million Sea Life Charlotte Concord Aquarium at Concord Mills officially kicked off Wednesday morning with a “wave-breaking,” a ground-breaking ceremony to lift shovels of sand from a 12-foot sandbox.
The aquarium won’t open until next spring, but it’s already attracting attention. A half-dozen Cabarrus County officials, including Concord Mayor Scott Padgett and Donna Carpenter, president of the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau, assembled to don hardhats and swim masks before they grabbed toy shovels.
The event also drew a passel of kids, many from home-school programs, who eagerly grabbed paint brushes to start an undersea mural. The mural will be displayed in the mall. Whenever there’s a new step in the project – when the water goes in, when the fish arrive, when the underwater viewing tunnel is finished – a new section of the mural will get painted in.
Even though the aquarium’s official name is “Charlotte-Concord Sea Life Aquarium,” it is clearly a point of pride for Cabarrus County. Stepping carefully to the microphone in swimming-fin shoes, Carpenter noted that Cabarrus County is 12th among the state’s 100 counties in the economic impact of travel.
Travel money saves $412 in taxes for every household in Cabarrus County, she said. The aquarium, built by Merlin Entertainment, the nation’s largest aquarium chain, will also provide 50 jobs.
On Wednesday, the event organizers thought of everything: There were Goldfish crackers in a giant martini glass on the snack table, and press kits stored on shark-shaped thumb drives. Two young “reporters,” Caleb Scott, 10, and Isabella Bourgeois, 7, held big microphones and taped reports that will be posted on the aquarium’s Facebook page.
The background music, playing the theme song from “Hawaii 5-0,” had to be turned off so Caleb could say his line: “Let’s show everyone how we dig sea life.” (Caleb had no idea what the song was – it was from the summer of ’68, 35 years before he was born.)
Everyone had a different reason for coming to a ground-breaking on a day when rain was threatening.
Ruth Edwards of Sedona, Ariz., brought her granddaughter, Paige Williams, 3 1/2, to paint. Edwards was making her annual visit.
“Art is my thing,” she said, overseeing while Paige slapped green paint into sea weeds. “I wanted to take her to something artsy.”
Michelle Fisher brought her three kids, ages 5, 7 and 9, who are home-schooled. The kids call their home school “Carolina Palms Academy,” and Fisher was wearing a palm tree necklace and starfish earrings.
“They love sea life,” she said.
Off to one side, Frank Wright, 86, was wearing a World War II Veteran ball cap and taking pictures of the festivities on his iPad. (We’ll pause to let that sink in.)
Wright served in the Navy in the South Pacific. He was 17 and stationed on Okinawa when the peace was signed.
“I love aquariums,” he said. “Makes me feel at home.”