Oklahoma City Zoo in negotiations for giant aquarium

Members of the Oklahoma City Zoo Trust have authorized Executive Director Dwight Lawson to negotiate a contract with PGAV Destinations to design a state of the art 80,000 square-foot aquarium in Oklahoma City.

St. Louis-based PGAV Destinations is most famous for its work on the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta. The Georgia Aquarium is the third-largest indoor aquarium in the world. The firm will provide the zoo’s board and trust members with conceptual drawings and cost estimates. 

In a statement to the Journal Record, the zoo’s director of public relations said a specific location has not been selected for the megaproject, but that officials are exploring the possibility of the aquarium being located within the OKANA project. 

The OKANA Resort will be an “expansive resort-style destination located adjacent to the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City”, according to the United for Oklahoma website. The project is spearheaded by the Chickasaw Nation and will feature a riverfront hotel, spa, outdoor adventure lagoon, amphitheater, indoor waterpark, restaurants, Native American marketplace, and retail outlets. The resort is expected to open in Spring 2015. 

The Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks will likely be replaced as the largest aquarium attraction in the four-state area when the new megaproject is finished. The Aquarium in Jenks is only 72,000 square feet, compared to the project’s proposed 80,000 square feet.

Almost a year ago, consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates collaborated with the State Chamber Research Foundation (SCRF) to create a report titled “Competing for Mega Projects: A Roadmap for Attracting Transformational Investments in Oklahoma.” The report urged Oklahoma’s elected officials to better incentivise “mega-project” investments. The report says that the most important trend in economic development are public-private partnerships required to create large developments. 

“Mega projects (or mega-sites) are loosely defined as “large-scale, complex ventures that typically cost US $1 billion or more, take many years to develop and build, involve multiple public and private stakeholders, are transformational, and impact millions of people,”” the report said. “Projects of this scope have accounted for an increasing share of international economic activity, with economic futurist Thomas Frey projecting mega project activity will account for 24% of the world’s GDP by 2026.”

The report said that Oklahoma can attract certain ventures without incentivization because of its inherent predisposition to the construction and development of megaprojects. Oklahoma’s large tracts of land make for suitable construction sites, and Oklahoma’s tax incentive programs that emphasize job creation are two facets of the Oklahoma economy that attract investors, but the SCRF’s report says Oklahoma can do better. 

Some of the report’s specific recommendations included raising the Quality Jobs Payroll tax for select large projects, increasing existing tax credits, allowing companies to benefit from tax incentives, and to coordinate and expand site-specific incentive packages. 

The new aquarium project and the OKANA resort are new entries into the relatively recent tradition of Oklahoma City mega-projects. The Omni hotel, Oklahoma City Convention Center, the Riversports adventure park, and what’s now called the Paycom Center were once only renders, concepts, and ideas but are now permanent fixtures of Oklahoma City. A new state-of-the-art aquarium is next.

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