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Work begins on new aquarium at Union Station

The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station is expected to open in 2019.
St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station
The St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station is expected to open in 2019.

Work will begin later this month on a new aquarium at Union Station in downtown St. Louis.

Officials gathered Thursday for a groundbreaking ceremony for the two-story, 120,000-square-foot aquarium that will house aquatic life that can be found in the ocean and the nearby Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Stephen O’Loughlin, president of Lodging Hospitality Management, said the downtown area needs an aquarium. After identifying that St. Louis was one of the largest markets without one, his company decided to turn some of Union Station's unused space into an aquarium.

O’Loughlin said the aquarium will create 500 construction jobs and 100 full-time jobs when the facility opens in May 2019. The project is part of a $160 million, family entertainment complex that will go into the nearly empty city landmark.

“There’s going to be a lot of theming and storytelling,” O’Loughlin said. “Starting with the look of it. ... On the river section we’re going to introduce an interactive experience with Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer. And the Mississippi River section looks like it’s a big root, kind of like going into the bottom of the river and the fish tanks are kind of surrounded by it.

“As you walk through there is going to be the sounds. So there might be crickets at your feet, different water sounds. ... It’s going to be less of a museum-type feel and more of a fun, entertainment, experiential feel, but still give you the education piece,” he said.

McCarthy Building Companies will handle the construction of the aquarium. PGAV Destinations has been tasked with designing the giant tank, which will hold 1.3 million gallons of water. This is one of several aquariums the St. Louis-based company has designed around the world.

Mike Konzen, chairman and CEO of PGAV, said the aquarium will offer an immersive learning experience for kids who might not have the opportunity otherwise.

"Often times, we see in our work with aquariums and zoos around the country that when you meet a child at the right age — with an experience, that frankly they couldn’t have ... in the world’s oceans, because it’s not practical — you can inspire a lifetime of passion and enthusiasm for aquatic animals,” Konzen said. “Perhaps the part I love the most about what I do is the opportunity to create something that is inspirational for young people.”

Incorporating the historic components of the train station was a key element when designing the aquarium, O’Loughlin said. 

Officials estimate the aquarium will have at least 1 million visitors in its opening year.

Chris Davis is a managing partner of ZoOceanarium Group, which specializes in all sorts of animal projects with a strong conservation focus, as well as on the well-being of the animals in their care. He said this is not only important for the St. Louis area, but it will become a national attraction.

“This is an amazingly historical building, [and] again bringing life back to it — you know it’s a unique life,” Davis said. “It’s aquatic life from really all around the world.”

Although officials have remained relatively tight-lipped on the creatures the aquarium will feature, visitors can expect to see sharks. Davis said they will be announcing a strong lineup over the next few months, focusing on animals from the region.

In addition, he said, the overall theme “certainly ties into the train and the experience someone would have had getting on a train here in Missouri, and ... the different areas that the train could have potentially taken them,” Davis said.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.