National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli points to an artist’s rendering of the planned new animal rescue and care center.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is preparing to lift the veil from a facet of its operation that most people never see.

The aquarium’s animal care center is currently located in a Fells Point facility that is off-limits to the general public and all but a few staffers. When it moves to a new location in Jonestown in 2018, the new facility still will not be fully open to the public like the aquarium is, according to CEO John Racanelli, but it will be designed to accommodate a limited number of visitors on guided tours and other events, such as community gatherings.

“It will not be a public facility,” Racanelli said. “But because of the layout, we’ll be able to offer guided tours so people will be able to see the inner workings of the aquarium.”

That change, plus its location in a Baltimore neighborhood away from the Inner Harbor, may encourage kids growing up nearby to pursue careers in the natural sciences, Mayor Catherine Pugh said during a visit to the construction site yesterday.

“We are very excited to have this particular facility located right here,” she said. “This project will not only expand the National Aquarium’s downtown footprint, it will bring some of its important behind-the-scenes work to one of Baltimore’s most historic neighborhoods, and that makes me happy.”

The aquarium “is an economic engine for the city and state, supporting thousands of jobs. Just imagine what it’s going to do right here in Jonestown,” the mayor continued. “I believe that what this particular venue will do, it will stimulate more visits to our aquarium, and then it will open the eyes of so many people in this community, in terms of what the possibilities are in terms of educational opportunities, in terms of jobs, in terms of just learning about this kind of life that takes place in our aquarium.”

Racanelli and Mayor Catherine Pugh. Photo by Theresa Keil/National Aquarium.

The aquarium recently began construction on its $20 million Animal Care and Rescue Center, which is expected to be complete in 2018. Yesterday, officials gave Pugh a hardhat tour of the site and explained how the new facility will work. Racanelli referred to it as “the aquarium behind the aquarium.”

The location is the former headquarters of marketing firm Chess Communications, located at 1001 E. Fayette Street, across from the downtown post office. The aquarium plans to retain the shell of the existing building and modify it to contain all the tanks and equipment needed to support a wide range of specimens, from tropical fish to turtles to seals.

The center will house animals that need to be kept apart from the general aquarium population for a variety of reasons, but are expected to end up in the main facility on Piers 3 and 4. In the Fells Point facility, for example, there’s a map puffer fish named Duncan that was eating the artificial coral in his tank and is being trained to quit. Others may need to be quarantined for health reasons.

The care center will house turtles and other animals that have been rescued in the wild and will eventually be returned to their natural habitat. It also will contain an area that will be used to fabricate exhibits. Racanelli likened it to “Geppetto’s workshop.”

Design Collective is the architect for the new facility and Plano-Coudon is the construction manager.

Racanelli said the animal care center is moving from Fells Point because it rents that space and its lease is up in mid-2018. The aquarium first opened it in 1993. Racanelli said the aquarium wanted to use the move as a chance to find a location that it could own, rather than lease, and create a “world class facility for animal care,” designed “around the needs of the animals.”

It will be “the first-ever permanent headquarters for our animal care in the life of the aquarium,” he said.

The Chess building was selected, Racanelli said, because it had the most space on one level of all the available options and was several blocks from the Inner Harbor facility. It also has a parking lot where the aquarium can store vehicles and two boats it uses as part of its operation. “This was…the biggest of the buildings near us,” he said. “The closer this is to the mother ship, the more effectively you can manage it.”

According to animal care center manager Ashleigh Clews and director of animal husbandry Andrew Pulver, the new location will give the aquarium more space than it has now. It will have about 56,000 square feet on one level and a mezzanine, compared to 45,000 square feet at present. It will have about 65 tanks of various sizes, five more than it has now. The tanks will range from 50 gallons to 50,000 gallons in size and will able to contain both fresh water and salt water. Fifteen to 20 people will work there.

The exterior of the old Chess Communications building that will house the new center.

The location in Jonestown was also seen as a plus, Racanelli said, because it’s a city neighborhood undergoing revitalization and the presence of the aquarium can help lead to positive changes in the area. He cited the recreation center across Fayette Street that was recently renovated with help from Under Armour and the Living Classrooms Foundation.

Racanelli said the aquarium plans to build the animal care center with a combination of public and private funds. Gov. Larry Hogan has included $3 million for the project in future capital budgets and the city gives $125,000 a year for capital projects by the aquarium, he said. For now, the aquarium has a line of credit it can use for construction.

Racanelli added that the animal care and rescue center is one of three priority projects for which the aquarium will be raising money in a separate campaign. The others are a plan to unify the Inner Harbor campus with ‘floating wetlands’ between Piers 3 and 4 and other changes to the ground plane, and a dolphin sanctuary outside of Maryland where it intends to move its Atlantic bottlenose dolphins by 2020.

During the tour, Racanelli also addressed a decision by the aquarium’s board to sell land in Port Covington that was once targeted for the same sort of facility it’s now building in Jonestown

In 2006, he said, the aquarium had plans for a $100 million Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation, which would have included a new animal care and rescue center. The city sold its vehicle repair garage at 101 W. Dickman Street and surrounding land for the project as a way to improve part of Port Covington.

The aquarium created a linear park called West Covington Park along the Middle Branch shoreline, but never moved ahead with the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation. All of the land has now been acquired by Sagamore Development, the real estate arm of Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, as part of a larger development planned there.

The CALC facility was proposed before Racanelli became the aquarium’s director, under former Mayor Sheila Dixon and former aquarium director David Pittenger. Racanelli said yesterday that the aquarium did what it promised to do with the land, including cleaning up a brownfields site and creating a public park along the water.

In retrospect, he said, the CALC project may have been too ambitious for the aquarium to pull off, and the 2008 recession didn’t help in terms of fundraising. So when “a “certain company” expressed interest in the property in recent years, he said, the aquarium responded. “It was good to get out of the way of that,” he said.

Racanelli said he believes the Fayette Street project will be beneficial for both the aquarium and the Jonestown community.

“The idea that we will have a facility in a neighborhood, where people live and work, is very exciting,” he said. “This really is a way to help us keep the aquarium vibrant and evolving.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.