Fishing for tourism: Sea Life opens

CONCORD -- N.C. Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker visited Concord on Thursday to welcome Exit 49’s newest tourism attraction – Sea Life Charlotte-Concord, which opened to the public at Concord Mills.

The $10 million attraction features 5,000 marine creatures including six sharks, several sting rays, jellyfish and a Giant Pacific octopus. The tour starts with tanks featuring aquatic life from the Catawba River and ends with the largest tank that features the sharks.

Sea Life rolled out the blue carpet near Entrance 7 at Concord Mills and brought in Sharky, the aquarium’s mascot, to cut the ribbon along with several locally elected officials including Congressman Richard Hudson, Cabarrus County Commissioner Chairman Liz Poole, Concord Mayor Scott Padgett and several Concord City Council members.

“You are standing in the most visited spot in the state of North Carolina right now,” Decker said.

Tourism is an important piece of North Carolina’s economic recovery efforts, Decker said. “It’s a big job creator,” she said.

Already, tourism draws about $19 billion per year to North Carolina, but there’s room to grow, she said. In Cabarrus County, tourists spent $362 million in 2012. Throughout the Charlotte region, which includes Concord, there are about 57,000 people employed in tourism.

Sea Life Charlotte-Concord is a unique attraction to the area. Merlin Entertainments, a British company, owns Sea Life. The local attraction is the company’s 100th to open worldwide, giving Thursday’s grand opening extra meaning for the company.

Decker said she’d like to see Merlin build all of its next 100 attractions in North Carolina communities, building on the relationship that started in Concord.

Merlin Entertainments now operates 100 attractions, nine hotels and three holiday villages in 22 countries across four continents. The company draws about 54 million visitors worldwide. In addition to Sea Life, Merlin also owns and operates the Legoland parks in Florida and California.

Drawing Sea Life to Concord was a joint effort that involved leaders from Concord, Cabarrus County, the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau and Concord Mills working together.

Concord City Council and Cabarrus County commissioners each approved property tax incentive grants for the Sea Life project. It was the last tax incentive grant Cabarrus County commissioners approved before commissioners began questioning the county’s policies for awarding grants. The grants from Concord and Cabarrus County are for up to an 85 percent discount on property taxes for up to three years on a new business or on the expanded portion of an existing business.

Concord City Council member John Sweat said Sea Life is a great example of local government partnering with businesses for positive local economic development.

“The numbers I have been told say there are 40 new jobs that were created by bringing Sea Life to Concord Mills,” Sweat said. “In addition to the new jobs, Sea Life will help to attract more visitors that will spend money on food, entertainment, lodging and hopefully some visitors will like it so much they will relocate here. Today is a good day for the city, county, state and the visitors who will make Exit 49 a destination exit.”

Mayor Padgett spoke Thursday about the work and economic development efforts over the last two decades that led up to the Sea Life opening.

“They (the N.C. Department of Transportation) were on aboard 17 years ago to start Exit 49. That’s the reason we’re here today,” Padgett said. “Everything out here at this exit is about commerce. It’s about commerce and jobs.”


Concord Independent Tribune, By: Karen Cimino Wilson

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