Politics & Government

NC budget uses disaster relief funds to pay for Fort Fisher aquarium expansion

About $5 million intended for Hurricane Florence disaster relief may instead be used to enhance one of Southeast North Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions.

A News & Observer review of the N.C. General Assembly’s budget documents found that money designated “to support repairs” actually would partly fund a 20,000-square-foot expansion at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher — which suffered far less damage during the September 2018 hurricane than the $5 million included in the budget.

Two legislators interviewed by The News & Observer said they had been unaware of the appropriation and questioned whether it’s appropriate to use money from the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund to pay for an expansion rather than boost hurricane recovery programs or make repairs.

The $5 million for the aquarium is also included in the disaster recovery “mini budget” passed unanimously Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee and now in front of the House Rules Committee. That legislation — Senate Bill 429 — says the $5 million is “to support” the aquarium.

According to the legislation creating the recovery fund, it was to be used “to provide necessary and appropriate relief and assistance from the effects of Hurricane Florence.” The Fort Fisher aquarium’s expansion is one of about 35 projects the budget would use the $754 million Florence fund to pay for. Among the others are beach replenishment, $8 million to help enable buyouts of flooded homes, and repairing storm-damaged public facilities.

Invoices obtained by The News & Observer indicate the aquarium spent $496,723 on storm-related projects, nearly all of which was related to a now-completed replacement of a damaged chiller in the HVAC system.

NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher
The N.C. General Assembly’s budget allocates $5 million from the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund to the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher, located just south of Kure Beach. The money would be used to partially fund a proposed expansion at the facility. Adam Wagner awagner@newsobserver.com

Fort Fisher Aquarium expansion

About six months before the September 2018 storm, the DNCR had included a request for $5 million for the expansion on a budget worksheet. A department spokeswoman recently confirmed to the N&O that the request would be fulfilled by the recovery appropriation included in the state budget.

“Fort Fisher is in need to improve and expand on exhibits that have considerable age. The exhibit renovation will allow new incentives for visitors to visit which will bring additional revenue to the aquarium,” the budget worksheet says.

It also shows that the General Assembly passed legislation in 2014 authorizing the aquarium to spend $5.8 million on the renovation project, mostly from the aquarium’s own revenue. Thus far, a DNCR spokeswoman said, the aquarium has spent $218,915 of the authorized funds on planning and design for the renovation.

Should the $5 million appropriation move ahead, the renovation would be funded by pairing the new allocation with the previously authorized $5 million in receipts, as well as $5 million from the N.C. Aquarium Society.

Earlier this session, Rep. Ted Davis, a Wilmington Republican, and Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican, introduced a bill seeking $10 million for the expansion project.

The bill describes a project that would include structural upgrades as well as a new tank for sand tiger sharks, an otter habitat and redesigned classroom spaces. Fort Fisher’s most recent expansion was in 2002, according to the bill, and the facility has drawn 6.4 million visitors since then, including 493,603 in 2018.

On a recent Sunday at the aquarium, parents took pictures of children standing in front of large tanks, toddlers gaped at sharks and families stopped to admire Luna, the aquarium’s rare albino alligator.

An albino alligator named Luna rests on a log at the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The rare albino alligator has been in the care of the aquarium since 2009. Courtesy of the NC Aquarium Society

The only indication Hurricane Florence had passed over the aquarium less than a year before could be found in a small alcove dedicated to the region’s hurricane history, where the storm’s track could be found on a map of hurricanes that have impacted North Carolina.

On July 26, Sen. Harper Peterson, a Wilmington Democrat, was one of a half-dozen Wilmington-area legislators to join House Speaker Tim Moore on a visit to the aquarium amid the state’s continuing budget impasse.

After the visit, Moore’s office used Twitter to tout the state’s investment in the aquarium.

“Touring the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to promote a $5 million budget investment in its facilities and an $8 million commitment to the new Visitors Center of the historic site. ... These cultural resources are a major draw to North Carolina & we are proud of the General Assembly’s support for their contribution to the state,” the tweets stated.

The tweets did not mention anything about Florence’s impact on the facility or say funds were needed to assist in its recovery.

A spokesman for Moore’s office did not respond to two requests from The News & Observer for comment, specifically about whether the Speaker believes the expenditure would be an appropriate use of disaster relief money.

General Assembly reactions

During the July visit, Peterson said, the aquarium did not have any exhibits closed off or visible leftover damage from last September’s storm. The New Hanover County Democrat said he would support using disaster recovery funding for the aquarium if it had affected operations, but would otherwise like to keep capital improvement projects separate from disaster relief.

“In our county, obviously, there are people that lost their homes, their livelihoods, that kind of expense,” Peterson said. “And now on top of that we’ve got behavioral health costs, a lot of trauma that’s associated with recovery. ... That’s where the money should go.”

Davis, whose district includes the Pleasure Island beach towns, said he believes using $5 million from the Florence fund to help pay for the expansion is appropriate. He compared it to using disaster relief money to fund the State Search and Rescue program.

“There are ways that you can use that hurricane recovery fund for items that are related to the hurricane,” Davis said.

House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican who also co-chairs the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief, has been one of the legislators most critical of Gov. Roy Cooper’s oversight of Hurricane Matthew recovery grants.

While he was unfamiliar with the Fort Fisher Aquarium line item, Bell said, “If it’s for repairs, then yes, it’s an appropriate use, but I actually haven’t been down there to see (that damage). But if it’s for non-repairs and an an expansion, probably not.”

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.