SeaQuest at Stonecrest expects strong support from community yearning for attractions close to home

Community leaders in Stonecrest knew there was skepticism about whether the lofty plan to bring an aquarium to the city’s mall would come to fruition.

After all, the aquarium was initially one of the many elements that was supposed to comprise the Atlanta Sports City project, a $200 million development that fizzled out before a single business opened.

That changed this week with SeaQuest at Stonecrest opening in the former Sears building at the Mall at Stonecrest.

Vaughn Irons, principal for Stonecrest Resorts and the project’s developer, told a crowd of elected officials Thursday morning that the aquarium’s opening is a delivered promise to the residents who want more entertainment options in their city.

“SeaQuest was one of the first things we tried, and now it’s one of the first things that we have delivered,” Irons said as a hungry, green-winged macaw squawked in the background. (The bird named Scarlet was soon fed by plenty of attendees.)

SeaQuest bills itself as an “educational land and sea adventure” with hands-on attractions and exhibits. The Stonecrest aquarium is the company’s 10th — and largest — location in the country. Most locations are within shopping malls.

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Irons bragged that it would generate $40 million of economic impact and will increase sales at the mall by 30% within its first year. The aquarium also employs 54 people with an annual payroll of roughly $1.3 million.

The city purchased the shuttered Sears in 2019 with plans of turning it into a public safety hub, but that vision was abandoned in favor of providing an entertainment venue for residents. Over the summer, the city’s Urban Redevelopment Agency sold the 15.1-acre parcel to Stonecrest Resorts for about $2.1 million to develop the SeaQuest location.

“We are truly excited about the impact that it will have on our local economy,” Councilwoman Jazzmin Cobble, who is also the chair of the URA, said Thursday. “We are excited for the families and friends and visitors to Stonecrest to have yet another great attraction to enjoy.”

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Stonecrest, a city founded in 2017, is home to Arabia Mountain, the Mall at Stonecrest and the historic Flat Rock community. However, Irons said residents, including himself, often have to travel to Atlanta for unique entertainment options.

“I get tired of taking all my guests 20 miles downtown into Atlanta to show off,” Irons said. “So I say we need to be able to have things in this community that we can spend the whole weekend showing off.”

Grant Williams III, general manager of SeaQuest at Stonecrest, said the aquarium caters heavily to families and children, offering interactive exhibits, bouncy castles and a space for birthday parties. Williams said he’s already seen the affect it has on children.

“I want to see how we can make a difference in the lives of some young people,” he said. “... the look on the children’s faces, I knew we were creating an experience that they would carry for the rest of their lives.”

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With 1,200 species of animals from five continents, SeaQuest offers exhibits varying from sting ray tanks to hopping wallabies. The aquarium plans to become a frequent school trip spot for local children, and teachers get free admission.

Tammy O’Shields, SeaQuest at Stonecrest’s assistant general manager, said she’s seen how hands-on activities help children learn through her own 11-year-old daughter.

“She doesn’t absorb information unless she’s interacting with something,” O’Shields said. “They get to touch the animals, and that’s how children learn and fall in love with animals. That’s how they learn about conservation.”

The aquarium’s grand opening is Friday and Saturday, but it’s held soft openings since Tuesday to allow staff to ease into their roles with smaller crowds.

Admission starts at $12.99 for children and $18.99 for adults. Annual passports cost $49.99. Patrons can also purchase tokens to use for specific interactive exhibits or to purchase food to feed animals. For more information, visit stonecrest.visitseaquest.com.

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