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CAMDEN, NJ-With up to $43 million in public financing finally in place and some land ownership questions finally answered, joint venture partners Steiner + Associates and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority are set to launch a long-awaited $57 million expansion of the New Jersey State Aquarium on this city’s waterfront. All agreements are expected to be finalized by mid-August, and ground is expected to be broken shortly thereafter.

The project is actually a lot more than expanded fish tanks and aquatic displays. The Columbus, OH-based Steiner + Associates is in on the state-owned and NJSEA-operated project not because of any expertise in the aquarium business per se. Rather, the company’s involvement will be to add a shopping and restaurant complex on 33 acres adjacent to the existing 11-year-old venue.

After an initial phase of retail, the long-term plan is to develop a second phase of retail, residential, hotel and office space. Build-out could take up to a decade and cost $135 million in private money, according to Steiner president Barry Rosenberg, whose company is best known for specialty retail tied to mixed-use entertainment venues.

The expansion got its jump-start late last week when the public money fell into place. Of that $43 million package, $25 million is coming from the state itself, and the remainder is being made available by the Delaware River Port Authority. DRPA’s contribution includes $15 million in loans and a $3 million grant, according to the authority’s executive director, John Matheussen.

DRPA also resolved some land issues to clear the way for the project, agreeing to transfer ownership of the 33-acre site to the state, and specifically to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Still to be resolved is a development and lease agreement with the Steiner organization, which all parties say will be finalized by mid-August.

The aquarium expansion is part of a larger effort to redevelop this troubled South Jersey city’s waterfront and, by extension, the city itself. Besides the existing aquarium, newer waterfront attractions include the Battleship New Jersey museum and the Camden Riversharks minor league baseball stadium. Housing development has also picked up, most notably Dranoff Properties’s redevelopment of the old RCA Victor manufacturing plant as a luxury residential building (see earlier story).

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