Archived Outdoors

Swain tourism authority requests aquarium expansion

The Swain County Tourism Development Authority is proposing an expansion to the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium that just opened its doors last summer. File photo The Swain County Tourism Development Authority is proposing an expansion to the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium that just opened its doors last summer. File photo

The Swain County Tourism Development Authority has approached the county about expanding the Appalachian Rivers Aquarium that just opened its doors in downtown Bryson City last summer. 

The aquarium is still working out some kinks and stocking the tanks with fish since opening in July, but already those operating the facility see the need for more functional space in order to keep growing it as a tourism attraction. 

The idea for a freshwater aquarium was actually an extension project of the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians housed in the Swain County Chamber of Commerce Building on Main Street. When the fly-fishing museum lost its lease for space in Cherokee, the Swain County Chamber and TDA welcomed the museum and its contents into its building in Bryson City in 2016. 

“From day one the idea was to have aquariums to connect the kids to the history of fly fishing in the process and when we came to Bryson City, we agreed the second phase would be aquariums and we raised the money to get it going,” said Alen Baker, a fly-fishing enthusiast who helped spearhead the museum. “It would be great to consolidate all of it together so people who come to the visitor center can be directed to one place for the aquarium and the museum.

But we understand it could take a while — maybe two years to get an expansion.”

It’s been a celebrated feature since outdoor recreation and specifically fishing is one of the cornerstone’s of Swain’s tourism economy. While the fly-fishing museum and aquarium operate as a nonprofit organization, both the TDA and the county have assisted in helping the venture grow as an attraction since locating to Bryson City. 

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The county owned the land along the Tuckasegee River on Island Street and took out a loan to pay for the construction costs of about $115,000 while county maintenance staff constructed the building. The loan will be paid off using Swain County tourism revenue dollars. The chamber/TDA has provided a staff member to act as aquarium director to oversee operations and the nonprofit folks raised the funds needed to purchase all the freshwater tanks and other equipment needed inside.

The aquarium has more than a dozen tanks ranging from 75 gallons to 620 gallons, including three tanks that make up the Mountain Stream exhibit featuring a waterfall that flows into the tank. Visitors can see up to 50 different species of regional game and non-gamefish, including northern and southern strains of brook trout and at times tiger trout, which is a natural, sterile hybrid brook-brown trout. The aquarium also features a pair of hellbenders, the largest salamander found in North Carolina. Seeing these elusive creatures up close is a treat since they are such a rare find in the wild.


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The freshwater aquarium is located on Island Street in Downtown Bryson City. File photo


Right now admission to the aquarium is free while the chamber tries to get all the tanks filled and the processes figured out. 

“Visitation has been good. The chamber has worked hard to adjust things as we go. When you first put in a big system like that and bring in different species, even with as much homework as we did, it can be tricky,” Baker said. “The chamber runs it every day and keeping the water quality is the most important thing in the whole system and there’s a learning curve. Some tanks are not filtering as well and we’ve had to adjust.”

Not long after the aquarium opened last summer, it was apparent that more space would be ideal. The plan the TDA board proposed to the county includes installing an elevator to access the second floor. Right now the second floor can only be used for storage, but with an elevator it could be better utilized for office spaces and perhaps a balcony where visitors can look out over all the aquarium tanks. 

The TDA also suggested an expansion to the first floor that would connect the existing building with the public restrooms located next door to the aquarium on Island Street. The addition would give the facility space to accommodate the fly-fishing museum collection so both attractions can be located in the same building. The proposal would also make more space for another classroom and a retail shop component. 

“I don’t feel like we don’t have enough space right now but we can always use more,” Baker said. “The interesting thing about museums is it has to be a tourism attraction but also have an element that preserves the heritage. Kids are not necessarily interested in history, but we want something that brings in the kids. Having the aquarium attracts the kids and then they also get to learn about history as part of that.”

Right now the chamber/TDA pay about $50,000 a year to the county to lease its office space at 210 Main Street. In the letter to the county, the TDA suggests putting that $50,000 allocation toward the aquarium expansion project instead. However, the letter doesn’t state where the chamber and TDA would relocate its office space or the costs associated with it. 

County commissioners will discuss the proposal during the next budget process, which will begin in the next few months. 

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