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Some say state-financed aquarium planned for private development a bit fishy

October 8th, 2017

— Questions surround a proposed state aquarium that would help anchor a private development in Pender County.

The state department that runs aquariums says it has almost no information about the project. Little seems to be written down beyond a few sentences in the state budget setting aside six figures in taxpayer money to get the project rolling.

Legislators who helped get that funding disagree on whether the state would also cover the much higher future costs to build and operate the facility.

The developer is cagey about those long-term plans but confirmed Friday it was his idea to build a public aquarium amid the homes and shopping centers he’s developing in Scotts Hill.

The project took members of the North Carolina Aquarium Society, which raises private money to bolster public funding at the state’s four existing aquariums, by surprise when they heard about it “through the grapevine,” board member Rick Willetts said.

“Why are we opening an attraction on a private development?” Willetts asked. “I’m sure there’s a lot of other developers who would love to have the state come in and fund some of their development as well.”

‘A win-win’

This project went went largely unnoticed in June when legislators tucked $253,794 in planning funds for it into the state budget.

That budget, and later documents, say $300,000 is dedicated to the project, but that figure was a mistake.

The issue came up again last week when lawmakers tweaked the budget so the money could be used not just for planning, but to draw up designs and seek construction permits. In both cases, the budget language laid out a location for the new aquarium: Blake Farms, a mega-development put together by Raiford G. Trask III.

The facility has been described as a “satellite aquarium” with a focus on shellfish aquaculture.

Trask, a generous campaign donor to North Carolina Democrats and Republicans alike, said the aquarium idea was his. Former state Rep. Chris Millis, a Pender County Republican who resigned unexpectedly last month citing undefined personal reasons, carried the idea to Raleigh.

“I just want a win-win for the community,” Trask said. “Yes, it would be good for my community, for my project. The overriding idea is to build something good for Pender County.”

Millis has said he wanted only to study the idea, not authorize architectural work, as the legislature did in his absence Thursday. State Sen. Bill Rabon, who also represents the area and holds sway as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said the language needed clarification so the project could move forward.

‘Out of character’

That Millis worked to include the project in the budget took some of his colleagues by surprise.

“This is just so out of character for him,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who was one of the first to question the aquarium project. “He questions every thing in the budget that smells of pork.”

Harrison called the aquarium a boondoggle and said the state needs to better fund existing locations if it has money to build a new one.

Trask said he expects to “build the shell” of the proposed facility himself, then have the state outfit and operate the aquarium. Legislators seeking more information about the project last week described rough plans for the state to rent the facility, or the land it would be built on, from Trask.

Asked to clarify this Friday, Trask said he’d rather hash the matter out with his partners than discuss it in the media. He declined to identify any partners within the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which operates the state’s existing aquariums.

Neel Lattimore, the department’s director of communications, said the agency doesn’t have any written records on the project, apart from an email Millis sent Secretary Susi Hamilton in July. Millis forwarded Hamilton a brief description of the project that he’d previously sent a reporter. He told the reporter he was “working collaboratively on the idea” with department officials and other local legislators.

Lattimore said Friday there was no collaboration on the department’s end.

“They didn’t come to us and ask us to cooperate or anything,” he said.

Who will pay?

Millis said Friday he’d expect the state to build and operate the aquarium just like its existing aquariums, which are taxpayer-funded with private donations used to shore up budgets.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a purchase,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a lease agreement. … The legislature did not dictate how this was going to play out.”

Rabon, R-Brunswick, had a different read of the situation, saying he expects private money to cover construction. But he also said it’s too early to say for sure that taxpayer money wouldn’t be used beyond the nearly $254,000 already earmarked.

“I shouldn’t think so, but I think it’s a little premature,” Rabon said.

Willetts, who lives in the area and said he knows Raiford Trask, said the developer is telling people that “he’s going to own the building and the state’s going to rent it from him.” Willetts said he met with Trask after hearing of the project and was told “basically this was a done deal, and nobody could stop it.”

Willetts pointed with concern to the bill used to change the appropriation on this project Thursday. It was a technical corrections bill, making dozens of unrelated changes. At least one legislator who said he was concerned with the aquarium language also said he voted for it because he favored other parts of the bill.

“It had all the Christmas ornaments in the world hung on the bill,” Willetts said. “I’m very disappointed that this thing has been ramrodded through.”

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