When NASCAR SpeedPark at Concord Mills closed on Feb. 8, it opened up a space for a proposed $10 million aquarium at the site.
The proposed Sea Life aquarium, which has been proposed for the old NASCAR SpeedPark site, was expected to receive approval from the Concord City Council on Thursday night for an economic development grant.
Cabarrus County commissioners approved an economic development grant for the project in January, saying it would round out the tourism appeal at Concord's Exit 49 on Interstate 85.
The aquarium is expected to draw as many as 350,000 additional tourists to the area each year. Already, that exit is home to Concord Mills, which reports 17 million to 18 million visits per year, and is the main drag leading to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Great Wolf Lodge, with its indoor waterpark, is another prime attraction at the exit.
"I see this as an economic enhancement for the area, and from the info we have seen, this should be the case," Concord City Council member Alfred Brown Jr. said about the proposed aquarium Thursday.
The Concord City Council was to vote on the economic development grant following a public hearing Thursday. Simon Property Group asked the city for a six-year, 85 percent economic development grant. The value of the city's grant would not exceed $162,712. The total value of the city and county grants will not exceed $400,000, according to city and county officials. Simon Property Group also has requested a grant form the Cabarrus Visitors & Convention Bureau.
If all grants are approved, the Simon Property Group plans to partner with Merlin Entertainment to develop a Sea Life aquarium at the NASCAR SpeedPark location in Concord Mills.
"As the Concord Mills Mall prepares to bring new attractions to the property, the space that is currently occupied by NASCAR SpeedPark is being recaptured and renovated. ... We are actively seeking a new location in the Charlotte market to reopen our park," NASCAR SpeedPark officials said in a statement about the closing posted on its Facebook page.
Many loyal patrons said on the Facebook page that they were sorry to hear about the closing of the outdoor go-kart race track, which also had other activities both indoor and outdoor. Some found the announcement sudden, saying they had planned to go to the NASCAR SpeedPark the next day. One former employee said the news was unexpected for them, too.
NASCAR SpeedPark's proposed replacement, Sea Life, is the world's largest aquarium brand with more than 30 attractions around the world. Sea Life offers feeding demonstrations, interactive opportunities, and talks on marine life in addition to the views of marine life. Some parks contain clear tunnels through the aquarium so visitors can view all types of sea life swimming above and around them.
The proposed 30,000-square-foot aquarium at Concord Mills would involve an investment of up to $10 million. Local officials say the attraction is the type of development that Charlotte and Mecklenburg County would also like to attract.
Concord City Council member Jim Ramseur said, "No one dislikes incentives more than I do, but the fact is if you are going to compete for projects such as this, you must offer some type of incentive or you will lose the project. The beauty of Concord's incentive plan is that it is like a partial rebate of the owner-paid property taxes for a fixed period of time based on new investment by the owner. During that time, the city never nets less property tax than before the project, and at the end of the term, receives 100 percent of the property tax. No money is ever laid out before it is collected."
Ramseur also said that jobs are created "as soon as the ribbon is cut." The site also will likely generate additional sales tax for local communities.
"The NASCAR Speedpark which now occupies the proposed Aquarium site is closing, so this is an opportunity to fill that empty gap immediately," Ramseur said. "Tourism is an ever-growing segment of our Concord economy and this is a chance to ramp up this local industry which provides so many local jobs. Attractions such as this help fill the hotels, restaurants and stores with extra customers creating the need to hire even more employees."
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