Can you please briefly tell us about your background?
I was born in Scotland. My parents were from New Jersey. I grew up in Indianapolis and then Elmira, New York. We moved there when my Dad became president of Elmira College. Growing up I was pretty much of a geek. I was a minor chess prodigy and won my first tournament at the age of 10. Later on, I got good at sports and I was still a geek, but being good at sports made it less obvious. I am a graduate of Cornell University and the Rutgers School of Law. For most of my adult life, I have been in the investment business. My first real job was at EF Hutton & Co. They are remembered for a very popular commercial about how when EF Hutton talks, people listen. Before moving to Ponte Vedra 14 years ago, I ran a brokerage division for a large credit union in New Jersey. My lovely wife Sharon and I fell in love with Ponte Vedra while on vacation here. We moved here with our daughter Austin in 2005. Almost immediately after getting here, we got pregnant and our son. Alexander was born here in 2006, so he is a real Florida boy. When I came here, I founded Standfast Asset Management. This gave me the opportunity to invest money for people who had placed their trust in me in the manner that I thought was most prudent.
What’s the story of the aquarium project?
The Atlantic Aquarium, downtown on the St. Johns River, is the brainchild of both scientists and academics and businesspeople interested in the economic benefits. The idea is to build an iconic structure downtown that will be a tourist destination as well as a first-class research and educational facility. We plan to drive a downtown renaissance, similar to what occurred in Chattanooga when they built their highly successful Tennessee Aquarium.
What’s the vision? What would it include/feature?
We have a unique opportunity here in Jacksonville for studying different types of water. We have access to salt, fresh and brackish water. That gives us the opportunity to study diverse eco-systems. The Aquarium will be solar-powered and environmentally friendly. We have a number of endangered species in our area and we will be leaders in saving manatees and other threatened marine life. It will also be very cool. It has to be. For this to work, this has to be the coolest thing many people have ever seen in their life. We plan on having Symphony concerts and weddings and other events. There will be at least one Airbnb room where you will be able to literally sleep with the fishes in a glass room under the water.
How did you become involved with the project?
The people at AquaJax, a nonprofit dedicated to building a world-class aquarium on the St. Johns River, saw the success we had installing the memorial to the Gulfamerica victims in Jacksonville Beach and they asked me if I thought I could do the same for them. I said “YES, we can build this!” They were attracted to my confidence. I originally fell in love with the renderings. If you have not seen them yet, it is going to be a gorgeous structure. I started doing research and the more I read about how successful these things have been in revitalizing other cities, the more I realized that the aquarium made sense for a whole lot of people, including government, civic leaders and industrialists — not to mention the entire population of the second-largest city on the East Coast.
You have 30 seconds to give your elevator pitch for the aquarium. What do you say?
We plan on building a modern wonder of the world on the banks of the St. Johns River in downtown Jacksonville. This iconic, winged structure will become the enduring symbol of our revitalized city. People will travel from all over the world just to have their picture taken in front of the Atlantic Aquarium and then, they will go inside. Once it is built, the land around it will become instantly more valuable and will soon be surrounded by hotels, restaurants, office buildings, law firms, accountants, engineers, shops and other amenities. This is exactly what happened in Baltimore and Chattanooga. The aquarium will be a solar-powered center for education and research, but it will also be an economic driver. Our feasibility study estimates a billion dollars of economic benefits over the first 10 years.