In the mid-1970s, the city of Norwalk under the direction of then-Mayor William Collins undertook the South Norwalk Revitalization Project. The goal of this program was to preserve the historic architecture of South Norwalk (affectionately dubbed "SoNo") and revitalize the neighborhood. The Washington Street National Historic District was established, and 32 buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
However, it would take more than old buildings to turn SoNo around. Plans were drawn for a major attraction that would bring people and tourism dollars into SoNo. The City of Norwalk and its Redevelopment Agency, along with The Oceanic Society, the Norwalk Seaport Association and the Junior League of Stamford-Norwalk made a major commitment to developing the new maritime center, complete with an aquarium featuring live animals from Long Island Sound, an IMAX theater with a six-story screen and a boat collection.
In 1986, ground-breaking ceremonies took place on the site of a former 1860s iron works factory, an abandoned brick building on the SoNo waterfront. What was then called The Maritime Center at Norwalk opened on July 16, 1988.
In July 1996, The Maritime Center at Norwalk changed its name to The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk to better identify itself to the public and underscore the increasing importance of the live animal exhibits.
According to a March 2003 Economic Impact Study, the Aquarium's annual economic impact on Norwalk is $20.3 million. Statewide, the Aquarium's economic impact is $41.8 million. (The dollar figures include visitor spending, jobs in the Aquarium, jobs created outside the Aquarium by its tourist trade, taxes paid by visitors and employees, and other spending.) And as the Aquarium grows, so does our positive impact on the community.
The Maritime Aquarium has been at the center of a major turnaround in South Norwalk. SoNo now bustles by day with unique shops, boutiques, coffee shops, and delis, and by night with nightclubs, acclaimed restaurants and cinemas.
Annual attendance now averages 500,000 visitors, making it one of the largest attractions in Connecticut (and the largest in Connecticut within 100 miles of New York City). Among the Aquarium's visitors are more than 150,000 schoolchildren on field trips, many of whom participate in marine-science programs offered by an active Education Department.
In April 2001, to support the growing number of visitors and educational programs, The Maritime Aquarium completed its first major expansion project. A $9.5 million Environmental Education Center (funded through corporate, private, and state contributions) added new classrooms and high-tech educational equipment, plus a new main entrance, larger gift shop and 180-seat food-service area. Freeing up the former gift shop space also allowed for the addition of sea turtles to the Aquarium's growing animal collection.
In 2005, The Maritime Aquarium adopted a new mission statement that rededicated the Aquarium to inspiring its visitors to preserve and protect Long Island Sound and its inhabitants.
In February 2012, the Aquarium unveiled a $4 million "FINtastic RefurbFISHment" that carried a stronger emphasis on telling the story of Long Island Sound through our exhibits. The transformation included creation of Newman's Own Hall (with a large LIS map and interactive "Found in the Sound" game), as well as dynamic new live exhibits and multimedia displays. In April 2012, the "RefurbFISHment" will continue with the opening of a Sharks & Rays gallery, which will include a large Shark and Ray Touch Pool.