Owner of Galleria Mall sues to evict SeaQuest before controversial aquarium opens its doors

(WSVN) - Another twist in a shopping mall’s quest to bring a controversial aquarium to South Florida. We have been on this story for more than two years now — and tonight, an update. Karen Hensel with 7 Investigates.

In 2018, The Galleria Mall announced SeaQuest, an interactive aquarium, would be coming to Fort Lauderdale, but the move to bring the ocean indoors quickly made waves.

Ken Pelton, protester: “It’s just a way to promote business at the expense of animals.”

Animal activists protested outside the mall and city hall angry about allegations animals were mistreated and died at other SeaQuest locations.

Fort Lauderdale gave the green light last year, but activists sued to stop it, claiming the city’s permit approval process was flawed.

Judge: “We’re here this afternoon on Campos vs. the City of Fort Lauderdale.”

Now, even as that lawsuit continues, another one has been filed. This time, by the owner of The Galleria Mall.

The same mall that tried to bring SeaQuest in now wants the aquarium out.

The eviction lawsuit accuses SeaQuest of breaching its lease after several companies filed liens claiming they are owed money for work on the project.

Robert Harris, Airmatic Controls: “It’s devastating. It makes it very difficult to stay in business.”

Robert Harris owns Airmatic Controls. The Davie company, which has 12 employees, installed cooling and ventilation systems for Seaquest.

Robert Harris: “They were custom made units to cool and dehumidify the space with the water tanks.”

Karen Hensel: “And you ended up paying your vendors even though you’re still owed over $100,000?”

Robert Harris: “I made sure that all of my vendors were taken care of, so I’ve definitely dug a big hole. Not only that, but trying to collect on that money, I’ve also accumulated additional costs.”

Harris says he’s still owed $108,000.

SeaQuest was expected to open last year but was delayed.

In a video posted two weeks ago on Facebook, CEO Vince Covino blamed coronavirus for the recent setback.

Vince Covino, CEO: “We put the exhibits up. We started our theming. We were well into theming. We’re actually about 85% of the way done, and then, that’s when COVID hits.”

But 7 Investigates has found SeaQuest got between $2 and $5 million through the federal government’s loan program meant to keep small businesses afloat.

In a statement to 7News, Covino said the company “lost many millions of dollars” when they had to close down other Seaquest locations due to the pandemic, and the loan money helped cover labor and rent.

As for Fort Lauderdale, Covino said they paid a “vast majority” of the subcontractors and have a plan to “pay all subcontractors in full.”

Karen Hensel: “If you had Vince Covino here in front of you, what would you say to him directly?”

Robert Harris: “The owner of Seaquest? I would say pay your contractors, so your contractor can pay his vendors and make things right.”

SeaQuest’s website still says its Fort Lauderdale location is set to open in late spring or early summer 2020. That time has now passed, and given the pending eviction case, whether it ever opens is in question.

Full statement from SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino to 7News:

“As with most zoos and aquariums, we have lost many millions of dollars due to the pandemic. We had to close down all locations days before our busy spring break and summer season. With over 35,000 animals to feed, the cost is over $55,000 every day. Fortunately, we shored up some of those losses with PPP funds, which covered labor and rent for a few months. Additionally, we have a dozen landlords around the country who have been very understanding and flexible on terms as we navigate these uncharted waters together. They know we will survive and deliver a significant economic impact once we get a vaccine.

While we are disheartened by immense pressure from Galleria, we are also working hard to come to an agreement wherein we have offered to bring significant cash to the table immediately, and have included a contingency plan to open SeaQuest this year and pay all subcontractors in full.  The vast majority have been paid in full for work performed, and only 6-8 weeks of work remains. We have maintained a skeleton crew on site continually, and they are on site working right now. If we are successful in getting a bit more flexibility from Galleria, we will open a very successful entertainment destination that will inspire over 400,000 guests per year to fall in love with and protect the animals who share their planet with us.” 

CONTACT 7INVESTIGATES:
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954-921-CLUE
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