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Aquarium plans premier place for penguins

NIAGARA FALLS – At the 48-year-old Aquarium of Niagara, the future starts with the letter “P.”

For penguins.

The initial phase in the aquarium’s first major capital improvement since it opened will be an expanded and refurbished penguin habitat.

And it got a huge boost earlier this year when it was awarded a $1.75 million state grant.

In total, it will be a $2.3 million to $2.5 million project, the first of what’s envisioned as a multiphase renovation of the whole facility to the tune of roughly $10 million.

“We have a good facility, but we need to get it even better right now,” Executive Director Gay B. Molnar said.

The aquarium has “never done a capital campaign as we’re doing now,” Molnar said.

The campaign is called “Come Join Our Journey: Support Our Penguins.”

The aquarium has a nine-member colony of Humboldt penguins, a threatened species. One of the nine was part of the original colony when it was established at the aquarium in 1978.

Aquarium officials envision a state-of-the-art space with more places from which to see the birds, as well as places where visitors can get closer views. The hope is that it will be ready in the summer of 2015.

The initial idea is to expand the exhibit to roughly 2,000 square feet from the approximately 300-square-foot exhibit that exists today.

The new exhibit would include a good amount of local rock as part of the habitat.

There also will be a new classroom for educational experiences for visitors.

The project means that most of what’s now on the first floor of the facility will have to be relocated or readjusted, Molnar said, though 99 percent of what’s there will be incorporated in the new plans.

Aquarium officials hope that expanding the penguin exhibit will be another step toward obtaining accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which is needed to grow the colony as well as increase educational opportunities for visitors.

Aquarium staff and representatives of Cannon Design are working together to develop the designs for the penguins’ new home.

The aquarium also will need a place to create a temporary home for the colony during construction.

Molnar said she is seeking “a very generous developer” who could offer secure, climate-controlled accommodations with water and sewer access.

It hasn’t been determined if the penguins will remain on display during construction.

Last month, the aquarium was awarded $1.75 million from a fund developed with the proceeds of excess cheap hydropower sold into the market from the New York Power Authority’s Niagara Power Project.

The facility, which will remain open during the renovations, sent in an application to the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board in May for funding to cover the entire first phase of renovations, Molnar said.

Aquarium officials are still working to raise the roughly $500,000 needed for the penguin project.

Molnar said “soft discussions” are under way with area foundations, and the facility is in the midst of talks with the city. The facility receives no funding from the city or county, she said.

Beyond the first phase, planned renovations include new coral reef exhibits, a new entrance, a new gift shop, refurbished educational exhibits, remodeled restrooms and moving administrative offices to the second floor.

“We’re going to redefine what we look like,” Molnar said.

From last October through this September, the aquarium had more than 275,000 visitors, a number that’s been increasing in recent years, Molnar said. The facility, which has about 18 full-time employees and 10 part-time workers, is open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The planned work does not mean the aquarium hasn’t been making smaller improvements.

The aquarium opened a new, $70,000 coral reef exhibit about five weeks ago and is installing a new filtration system for its outdoor harbor seal exhibit to the tune of more than $125,000.

The head of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. welcomes the aquarium’s renovation plans.

“Any destination prides itself on the enhancement of its existing product offerings, and we look forward to showcasing this new experience to our inbound visitors,” said John H. Percy Jr., president and chief executive officer.

While fundraising continues, the facility hopes to start construction on the new penguin habitat in about a year, to open in June 2015 during the aquarium’s 50th anniversary.

“We can envision us being here at least another 50 years,” Molnar said.