CONCORD, N.C. -- Concord Mills’ parent company Simon Properties plans to build a $10 million aquarium that has the potential to draw up to 350,000 visitors to the area each year.
Cabarrus County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve an industrial development incentive grant for Simon Properties. The grant would essentially grant Simon an 85 percent discount on property taxes assessed for the $10 million expansion. The value of that grant is $238,000.
Commissioner Chairman Liz Poole, Vice Chairman Jay White and Commissioner Steve Morris voted in favor of the grant. Commissioners Larry Burrage and Chris Measmer opposed the grant.
Merlin Entertainments Group, an English company, would operate the aquarium, which would be a tenant of Concord Mills. The aquarium would be accessible from inside the mall and would be located where the NASCAR SpeedPark attraction is now, Padgett said.
“We’ve got to vote on it. But I think from what I’ve heard that the (Concord City Council) feels good about it, but we haven’t voted on it,” Padgett said.
Padgett said the proposed aquarium would be a great addition to Exit 49 on Interstate 85, which is already a tourist destination. Concord Mills is the number-one tourist destination in North Carolina, with 17 to 18 million visits per year. Great Wolf Lodge’s indoor waterpark, the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway and the convention center at Embassy Suites on Bruton Smith Boulevard have all contributed to drawing visitors to the area.
“Having an aquarium that is just purely for tourism and education will mean that not only will people be coming here to shop and dine, but this is something educational for children and families,” Padgett said. “It’s enjoyable. It very well could result in people staying in hotels maybe an extra night when maybe they’re here for a convention or a meeting.”
John Cox, president and CEO of the Cabarrus Economic Development Corporation and the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the project will create about 30 jobs. About 50 percent of those jobs would pay in excess of the existing average wage.
Commissioner Morris said he supported the incentive grant because it is a competitive project that could easily go elsewhere.
“I think that Mecklenburg County and uptown Charlotte would be delighted to have an opportunity to incentivize them,” Morris said. “I’m very much in favor of it.”
Commissioners Measmer and Burrage have each remained consistent in voting against incentive grants that come before the county commissioners. Both have said that they are fundamentally opposed to incentive grants and government intervention in private business and repeated those sentiments Tuesday night.
“Most people know how I feel about the tax incentives,” Measmer said. “This country was founded on a free enterprise system. I can’t stand back and watch that go away. The fact that this commission board is deciding on which company gets a subsidy and which does not, means that the government is getting involved too far. … This is government getting too involved in the private sector. Unfortunately we’re seeing more and more of that.”
Burrage said, “I don’t support it at all. Government ought to stay out of private business as far as I’m concerned.”
Morris disagreed with their position. He said the property value of companies Cabarrus County has given industrial development incentive grants to is $1.34 billion.
“They have paid $178.26 million in property taxes. Obviously, we have used those funds that have come to our county government,” Morris said. “When we embark on a project like this and we approve it, we’re certainly doing it to attract this business to Cabarrus County. But it helps other businesses.”
Commissioner White also supported the grant for the project.
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been looking for this type of attraction for 18 years, minimum, and they have yet to land it,” he said, adding that while ticket sales do not generate sales tax, the added hotel stays would.
Commissioner Chairman Poole said she believes the mall needs to continue growing and reinventing itself to remain a popular attraction.
Merlin Entertainments Group has locations in the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia. The group acquired LEGOLAND Parks, which are located in Florida and California, in 2005. The company also owns Sea Life aquariums with locations in Arizona, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas.
Contact reporter Karen Cimino Wilson: 704-789-9141.