Local Talent is Building Shreveport Aquarium from the Ground Up

The sharp pang of hammers pounding away, slaps of wood stacks hitting the floor, and the sound of power tools buzzing in the air are all signs of progress here in Shreveport, Louisiana. Four people have taken their vision to offer a string of aquariums across America and broken ground in Downtown Shreveport, building their flagship aquarium along the shimmering waters of the tranquil Red River. These four individuals make up the Planet Aqua Group.

This group consists of four founding members with extensive resumes in the aquarium world, ranging from fishery science and biology to designing exhibits and working on several different continents in themed entertainment. This group has an impressive list of accomplishments and accolades and their goal is finally coming to fruition—to build an aquarium that will educate and inspire people to make a change in their own world. Seeing that we are all stewards of this planet, it’s exciting that these individuals have discovered the spark in our community to accomplish such a grand goal, all while embracing North Louisiana.

Re-envisioning a beloved botanical treasure, The Barnwell Center, as the Shreveport Aquarium and making personal sacrifices to build their dream site, the team has invested time, money, and sweat equity while focusing all energies toward a summer opening. Speaking with Jon Whitehead, Co-Founder and Visionary of Planet Aqua Group, one is instantly aware of his passion for the environment and all things aquatic. Scouring the country for sites since 2014, the team decided Shreveport was the perfect place to make the initial splash thanks to the demographics and beautiful building site at the Barnwell Center.

To determine the aquarium feasibility, the team first looked at distances from established aquariums and feeder markets. Drawing a 100-mile radius circle around the city, with no other aquarium close by, meant that Shreveport and surrounding areas would be able to support the tourism required to keep the aquarium operating.

With 2 million people living within a 100-mile radius of Shreveport-Bossier City, Shreveport checked the box for demographics. The next hurdle was to find a site—cue the deserted Barnwell Center and a meeting with the City of Shreveport’s Mayor, Ollie Tyler. The Barnwell Center was deemed perfect for the job, and the rest is now history.

Transforming the Barnwell Center and its iconic 7,850 square foot plexiglass dome, part of the downtown waterfront image, truly keeps with the group’s mission and goal as environmentalists to recycle, re-use, and re-purpose. Once a horticulturist’s dream, even boasting a fragrance garden for visually impaired people, the Barnwell Center was treasured and well-loved during its time in Shreveport.

Now in the process of being transformed into an educational experience for North Louisiana, the Barnwell Center has been treated as the treasure we all have known. Jake Wood, Marketing Director for Shreveport Aquarium, discussed how the group is making thoughtful nods to the Barnwell Center at every opportunity. Recognizing the significance of this building for many people in all stages of life he said, “We want this to be more than just an aquarium being built for Shreveport. It’s a place where all of Shreveport can come together, eat, learn, laugh, and truly be a part of something special.” Recognizing that without the Barnwell Center, Shreveport Aquarium would be a totally different concept, Woods said the group is re-purposing and salvaging as much as possible since the history is something not to be discarded.

Once the agreements were signed, Planet Aqua Group was ready to embed itself in the community and find local talent to design the aquarium and create reality. Finding hidden talents and buried treasures in Northwest Louisiana, Jon Whitehead said that 90% or more of the aquarium will be completed from start to finish by local talent, vendors, and contractors.

Once Planet Aqua Group looked past the lacking incentives offered by other states to firmly decide upon Shreveport, Whitehead saw a depth to the city of more than just financials. He discovered an incredible amount of resources in Northwest Louisiana that most don’t know exist. By the time the project is completed, Whitehead figures that there are easily close to 200 touches by the community from print and design to fabricating theme pieces and the physical construction of the site.

Many people have tread the Aquarium waters to get things moving in a positive direction with Jon Whitehead praising Shreveport’s Arlena Acree, Director of Economic Development and Film, as an invaluable and enthusiastic champion who has moved mountains and navigated difficulties.

Considering the closest aquarium is in Dallas, Texas, at a quick 3-hour drive or head South to New Orleans, Louisiana, for a 5-hour jaunt—North Louisiana will be able to draw large crowds thus increasing our tourism.

Jon Whitehead, Co-Founder & Visionary of Planet Aqua Group

Jon Whitehead, Co-Founder & Visionary of Planet Aqua Group

Chris Jay, Public Relations Manager for the Shreveport/Bossier City Convention and Tourist Bureau was completely blown away after taking one of the hard hat tours offered by the Shreveport Aquarium. Jay was beyond impressed with the improvements and plans, but he found the LEED certification goal using recycled materials and finding efficient ways to conserve water and power as truly going the extra mile. “They are doing this the right way for environmental stewardship—it’s just impressive,” explained Jay.

LEED certification is quite difficult to obtain, requiring dedication and commitment, as it is often
costlier to recycle and re-use than it would be to purchase brand new. The first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accredited professional in our region and only local architect to secure a LEED Gold rating for a building in North Louisiana is Shreveport’s Kevin Bryan. As a future Green Building, Bryan said the Shreveport Aquarium has made the commitment to use sustainable building practices, proving that the Planet Aqua Group is dedicated to protecting the environment in whatever small (or large) ways possible.

To prevent incredible amounts of construction waste being placed in landfills, Bryan explained that with just a little effort big waste can be curbed. Simply using the wrong materials such as the amount or type of insulation or perhaps by specifying the wrong type of lights or HVAC equipment can be a big waste of energy. As Bryan pointed out, there are numerous, easy ways to conserve energy, avoid waste, and create environmentally responsible buildings with a little forethought before construction with a LEED accredited architect.

Serving primarily on the building renovation design team and having been involved in all three phases of this project, Kevin Bryan and his team are helping to make sure the aquarium’s sets, exhibits, and aquarium tanks work within the existing building as well as with all of its new or existing building systems. Designing the underground process piping, above ground tank bases and the deep foundations for the very large aquarium tanks, the team has also redesigned and added to the existing restrooms making them fully handicap accessible to accommodate the anticipated number of visitors per day.

The team has also designed a new restaurant space called SALT, and are currently in the process of wrapping up the design of the new exhibit floor inside the Arboretum as well as the outdoor space in the rear courtyard—all eagerly anticipated spaces.

With Planet Aqua Group’s mission and dedication to the environment, they are putting their money where their mouth is by re-routing one or more of the existing roof drains to fill an underground cistern with rain water inside the Arboretum which will provide irrigation to new plant life inside this space. Even small ways of helping our planet will have an impact on business in the Aquarium with a ban on pre-packaged bottle water or Styrofoam cups during any meetings on site. One of Jon Whitehead’s many sayings, “The devil wears an overcoat and it’s made of Styrofoam,” stuck out in Bryan’s mind as truly practicing what he preaches, as these materials can take over 500 years to decompose in a landfill versus a paper cup which decomposes within weeks with the right conditions or be recycled.

Planet Aqua Group is also repurposing as much of the existing demolished material as possible by relocating and reusing existing millwork, making desks out of doors, and using former set props from the TV series Salem filmed in Shreveport. All of this material would have been bound for the landfill had the Shreveport Aquarium not used them. This was a win-win in terms of reusing and repurposing, said Brian, “speaking directly to the aquarium’s desire to protect not just the aquatic environment, but ALL of our environment.”

Local creative powerhouses, Jim Hayes and Bruce Allen of Jim & I – Design Collective, are an incredible dream team. Feeding off of each other’s creative flow, the two were approached by Jon Whitehead in the fall of 2016 to help bring the Shreveport Aquarium to life. Whitehead was shocked to discover Jim and Bruce, whom he called phenomenal with incredible talents and decades upon decades of experience.

Their business name Jim & I, a play on words for the astrological Gemini twins, suits them as they often act connected in thought when brainstorming and designing. While Bruce specializes in art and
materials, along with welding and fabricating, Jim engineers, builds, and creates mechanical drawings to use—designing conceptually together. Their projects are created with each building upon the other’s ideas which produces ideas that are nothing short of beautiful.

Jim Haynes of Jim & I-Design Collective

In their design studio, there is an entire wall dedicated to the aquarium, with picture upon picture of fishing villages and mangrove swamps surrounding sketched out plans of the aquarium layout to gaze and ponder upon. The two created a small-scale version of the aquarium out of materials on-hand to continue the theme of re-use and re-purpose. Bruce was able to repurpose tiny materials from other completed projects such as the rocks on the model actually being Willy Wonka candies from a candy store they did in L.A. Bruce and Jim are thrilled with the Shreveport Aquarium letting them have creative freedom for the designs, never knowing where inspiration will hit, but when it does the wow factor is off the charts.

The much-anticipated jellyfish light fixture created and crafted by Eric Allen, President/Owner/Artist of Ed’s Emporium Stained Glass Studio in Bossier City will hang in the entrance of the aquarium. The idea for this massive artwork all started with Eric Allen taking a slumped glass class, creating a jellyfish wind-chime, and Jim Hayes having to get one for his wife.

When Jim and Bruce realized one of the rooms in the aquarium is dedicated to jellyfish—they knew instantly a giant jelly fish chandelier would be an amazing piece of art work for the entrance.

The fixture has given Eric Allen the opportunity to showcase his talents, thus building new business for his parent’s shop, which he now runs. With many glass shops disappearing, a group was started to figure out how to survive in a world where glass work was fast becoming a lost art. Eric Allen joined the Retail Art Glass Studio group which is where he learned how to create the jellyfish wind chime.

Wanting the aquarium to be for people of all ages, Jim and Bruce have dreamed larger than life. Starting at the entrance, guests walk under a massive nod to the Barnwell center with artistic white salvaged panels lit as moon light hung from the ceiling. Guests will also be able to experience the giant jellyfish chandelier complete with tentacles and fairy lights to provide the visual component of the creature’s bioluminescence. Or perhaps imagine checking into the reception desk or visiting the kiosk made with seaweed sculptures and thick plexiglass colored like pristine ocean waters.

This is also where Steve Culp’s metal sculpture crafted from salvaged and repurposed Barnwell lettering will hang in a special place on the wall. All of these pieces are a fitting nod to the heritage that made the Aquarium possible.

When you enter the massive mangrove swamp in the Contact Cove, resting atop the sharks and rays, you will find a ray touch tank and giant Megalodon shark jaw protruding from the wall coupled with a hands-on shark tooth matching activity sponsored by a local dentist. Purchase fish food from the fishing shack and feel immersed in island culture with the fishing village set built on the walls. Visitors will also be able to peer through widows into the life support room which will feed all the tanks and serve as an interactive way to show how the water flows through the facility.

From here, guests will find the docks and submarine station with a bubble for children to get up close and personal with jellyfish. They can watch the grace and splendor of these lovely creatures without the threat of being stung. There are also plans for a 20-foot jellyfish touch tank and a large spider crab exhibit to get a closer look at what lies beneath the waves.

Within eyesight will be the diving bell, which will house a diving helmet with virtual reality goggles currently being designed by graduates of the local Digital Media Institute at InterTech alongside the institute’s Executive Director, John Miralles acting as Executive Producer. Having already completed an incredible three-dimensional digital aquarium sign welcoming those flying the friendly skies from Shreveport Regional Airport, these digital masters are now creating the virtual reality diving bell. Children will be able to take a voyage to the bottom of the sea in collaboration with the aquarium to offer the latest in animation technology.

Miralles was sure to point out that the Shreveport Aquarium is creating jobs in our community by using recent graduates from digital media programs at the Institute to work on the project with Miralles. The Shreveport Aquarium will be offering 45 aquarium jobs and filling 18 positions in the uber chic SALT restaurant—on top of the jobs that have already been commissioned by Planet Aqua Group.

Traveling down the hall of the aquarium, one will find the sunken ship room created with re-purposed Salem set pieces such as the wooden floor planks. The tanks will hold fish that divers would find on shipwrecks, even keeping concrete cannonballs and cannons within its waters while an anchor rests partially in and out of the side of one of the tanks.

Building the room as a set that can be easily changed, Jim Hayes wanted it to be an easy transition, especially if they wanted to change up the room or repair an item if something gets broken. The key thoughts behind the design are durability, safety, and accessibility. Taking into account all limiting disabilities, Jim and Bruce have spoken with the Blind Center and Deaf Action Center.

One entire room will be devoted to our own local Sportsman Paradise, designed as Caddo Lake, and offering an overall aquatic view of our native aquatic animals. This room will double as an event space, available for private events. Party-goers will be able to rent single spaces or the entire facility, from the patio to the arboretum to classrooms. Jake Wood wants the Shreveport Aquarium to be the place for a fun night out or a Saturday walk-through with children—the sky is the limit.

The dynamic and multi-talented Jim and Bruce duo have stopped counting the hours they have put into the aquarium model with it being their main focus since January of this year, pointing to the creative process as keeping them on their toes.

The Touching Tomorrow exhibit will focus on teaching the young and old how people can avoid depletion of natural resources and maintain ecological balance, otherwise known as sustainability. For this exhibit, Bruce Allen has been tasked with projects such as building the large water bottle sized plastic shrimp from zip-ties and used plastic water bottles, continuing with the re-use philosophy preached by the Shreveport Aquarium. As head of Centenary College of Louisiana’s Art Department, Allen is able to hire students to help with the project thus creating yet more jobs from the aquarium.

One of the many genius ideas Bruce and Jim came up with for the Touching Tomorrow exhibit room is exhibiting water hyacinth—the invasive water plant wreaking havoc on our very own waterways—to help visitors understand the plant. To properly portray the choking and blanketing affect this species has on our waterway, Bruce is creating water hyacinth out of plastic water bottles to blanket the ceiling and give the feel of what happens when it covers the water.

And yet, there is still more, with a seashore exhibit and tidal pool touch tanks, an ocean cave, and bioluminescent tank full of flashlight fish. At just about every nook and cranny, twist and turn there is something to interact with or become tranquilized watching.

Jim Haynes & Bruce Allen of Jim & I-Design Collective

Even the two classrooms will be used to teach environmental awareness to visiting children and youth, allowing visitors to learn the impact we as humans can have on our planet. Working with local teacher and conversationalist, Jon Soul and his Bayou to Bay program—children will learn about how sea life can be affected by our local actions. This program will focus on protecting our existing streams, rivers, and waterways as these bodies of water ultimately lead to the Gulf. Additionally, they are working with local schools to develop a curriculum, with the hope that their favorite Jacques Cousteau quote, “People protect what they love,” will be fostered and embraced as a passion in the children who visit.

Woods understands that some people will never be able to experience this sea life in its natural environment. With exhibits displaying animals found all over the world and in our own back yard, his wish is for guests of the aquarium to learn through interacting and discovery.

If building an enormous aquarium was not enough, Planet Aqua Group is ready to enjoy the fine local cuisine that will be offered at Shreveport’s newest restaurant, SALT. As the only restaurant in Shreveport to overlook the waters of the Red River, Shreveport’s newest restaurant is the type of place to see and be seen. SALT will be stylish, sophisticated and decorated with a bit of California flair. SALT’s General Manager, Konstantin Plavnik’s enthusiasm for the new space is contagious–because everything they serve will be Louisiana made or grown. Introducing Louisiana to sustainable food, once again continuing the common theme from the aquarium, SALT will serve anything caught or farmed locally within the waterways and lands of Louisiana.

Wanting to foster a complete full circle, Plavnik will secure products that are indigenous to Louisiana, transforming them into a delicious dish which guests will be able to enjoy. The restaurant will then be able to purchase more locally grown foods—reinvesting in our farmers and standing firm with the Know Your Farmer movement, because to the SALT team, the farmers are the rock stars.

Table tents will showcase where the day’s food came from and they plan on hosting a get to know your farmer gathering once a month. They want Shreveport to know where their food comes from, and are making every effort to support the goals of the aquarium through their food.

Behind the bar will be a wall of salt, literally, and not just any salt, but Himalayan Rock salt. Another large draw to SALT will be the oyster bar. Hand-crafted by Jim and Bruce with hand chiseled acrylic and stained to look like the ocean waters, the oyster bar will have six different varieties of oysters. Just to get an idea of the menu and mouthwatering deliciousness, Plavnik will serve charbroiled oysters drizzled in sake jalapeño butter and smoked gouda cheese with prosciutto chips. Look out Drago’s because there is a new oyster specialty in Louisiana.

To support local micro brews, breweries and wineries, SALT will showcase Louisiana made beverages by offering them on tap, in the bottle, or by the glass. For herbs, leafy greens and tomatoes, the restaurant team asked Michael Billings of Cotton Street Farms to supply their needs. As a relatively new hydroponic grower, this branch of farming has expanded from the Dixie Maze farmers to this new and exciting service. In the process of purchasing and moving to a building downtown, Cotton Street Farms will grow produce indoors using hydroponics with no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides needed due to the lack of dirt. Using a closed watering system, Billings will grow food vertically and deliver to door steps for free. In addition, they will be growing micro greens exclusively for SALT.

At zero waste and 10 harvests a year, Billings will be able to grow the exact amount of produce he will sell—thus continuing the sustainability and environmental stewardship the Shreveport Aquarium is preaching.

As Adrea Gibbs, the Planet Aqua Group’s Managing Director said, “It only takes one small drop of water to create a ripple.” Let’s hope that the ripple they plan on making will enlighten the future generation of our area and those that visit will be the difference that is required to make changes for the betterment of the world. The ripple that the four founding members of Planet Aqua Group has had on our community will be felt for many years through their education outreach and quality employment now and down the road.

They looked past the lacking incentives to come to North Louisiana where other States offered so much more, and found a place where people will stand with them to get this off the ground. They found a place that is primed and ready to learn and embrace the ideals they hold so dear. They have found a place for their dream to call home—Shreveport, Louisiana.