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Aquarium project slowed, but end is in sight

By Michael Glover • Guest Columnist

This is in response to the letter “Disappointed in New Aquarium” from Chuck Harrell of Whitter, which appeared in the July 3 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

The Appalachian Rivers Aquarium has already proven to be a great asset to Swain County Tourism and to the local community. Our soft opening is going on during the months of June and July (Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) with free admission. Our visitor count numbers have far exceeded our expectations and is a hit with all ages. We are very truthful with each visitor that we are still working on this project and all have been understanding. We will begin charging a small admission fee once the remaining tanks are filled with fish; however, the donations we have received from visitors has been exceptional. We appreciate the community and visitor support!

The hellbenders continue to be a top attraction, and we are adding more species on a gradual basis. The acclimation process is very delicate, and we are devoted to providing a safe and healthy environment for the fish. With the help of a local fishing guide we also have catfish, rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, large and small mouth bass and a knotty head. 

The approximate cost to construct the aquarium building was $115,000, which was built by Swain County Maintenance and Facility employees. Swain County acquired a loan to pay for the building construction, and that loan is being paid by the Swain County Tourism Development Authority with tourism dollars.

Once the aquarium building was completed, Mr. Alen Baker of Charlotte and his crew of volunteers acquired donations to purchase tanks and equipment to install the tanks, at a cost of approximately $80,000 to $90,000. Mr Baker’s crew installed the tanks.

Once the tanks were installed, the Swain County Chamber of Commerce signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Swain County giving the maintenance of aquarium and existing property to the Chamber of Commerce. Upon receiving the aquarium, additional funds were necessary to pave the parking lot, stripe the parking lot, buy a generator, purchase a water filtration system, purchase all testing supplies and equipment and purchase food for the fish. So far this has accounted for additional expense of $40,000 which the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has paid for with tourism dollars. 

Our goal is to sustain the tanks in a healthy manner for the fish. We do not want to fill the remaining empty tanks with fish until then. Once all remaining empty tanks are stabilized and in order to add more species, we will begin painting the floor, not tiling it as the writer stated. We are also adding more air conditioning units to help maintain proper temperatures in the air surrounding the tanks; and relocating the chillers to control heat output. 

At no time did the town of Bryson City contribute money to this project. The writer’s information is false. 

We realize that more fish are needed to fill all of the tanks; however we decided to open the Aquarium so people can enjoy what we have. And by the way, it is free admission until the tanks are full.

It was understood by us that the upstairs was to be used only for storage, so that was not of issue to the building inspector. The classroom the writer mentions was always intended to be where it is — on the main floor with a separate entrance.

Certainly, we had hoped to be further along before opening our doors and had announced a June opening, but after the volunteers turned the project over to the county and the chamber, we realized that there was more work to be done than anticipated. We have been working diligently to resolve all issues and fully expect the Aquarium to be a unique tourism draw for Swain County in the near future.

(Michael Glover lives in Bryson City and is the president of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.)

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