While watching “Sea Hunt” on television as a child, it wasn’t necessary to wear fins and a mask; but, that didn’t keep the man who is in talks with the City of St Augustine to build an 8,000-square-foot aquarium on Riberia Pointe, from feeding his lifelong fascination with the ocean.
The 53-year-old Shawn P. Hiester, who, with his wife Kathy, lives in Palencia, made his pitch to buy the 1.4-acre site before the City Commission Monday evening. The Hiester’s have formed “Marine Conservation Partners” to own and operate the aquarium, if it is approved.
“I’m an avid scuba diver and a closet marine biologist,” Hiester was quoted in an interview that appeared in the Jacksonville Business Journal. “We’re really interested in enlightening others. Your average person cannot get under water to see it.”
The property has been a white elephant of sorts for the city — it was the location of a landfill at the center of a dispute with the Department of Environmental Protection; which led to fines and sanctions against the city for illegal dumping. Failed ideas for the piece of elevated, reclaimed land at the southernmost point of Riberia Street, have included a new coral-growing industry, ballyhooed as capable of becoming a tourist attraction, and, of course, a 450th Commemoration Legacy Project, and most recently, a Carriage Transfer Station with stables and paddocks — an idea that was very vocally rejected by its Lincolnville neighbors.
The Children’s Museum of St Johns is also exploring buying or leasing an adjacent parcel, where it would build 15,000 square feet of indoor exhibit space and 25,000 square feet of outdoor exhibit space. In conjunction with Marine Conservation Partners, the museum is also discussing a waterfront plaza; with shops and restaurants and a waterfront amphitheater.
Hiester, principal of SPH Consulting and a former Haskell Co. employee, projected construction cost of the aquarium at $3 million. His plans for the aquarium include several types of sharks, octopi native to the Atlantic Ocean, and spaces where children can interact with stingrays and bamboo sharks. If approved, Hiester told reporters he will invest some of his own money in the deal and seek debt financing for the balance.