Old Black Angus restaurant is being turned into an aquarium

MILWAUKIE, Ore. - A new aquarium that will give kids a hands-on experience with marine life and other creatures is coming to Milwaukie.

Work is well under way on the 12,500-square-foot Oregon Aquarium (not to be confused with the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport) at 16323 S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard.

If the building in the picture looks familiar, that's because it's the same one where folks used to go for a steak dinner - it's an old Black Angus restaurant. The building has sat empty for a few years and a fire even broke out there in early 2012.

The aquarium is being privately funded and will be a for-profit venture. It's slated to open in late winter.

We stopped by this week to take a look at the work that's being done and talk to one of the partners, Ammon Covino, about the project.

Covino works at an aquarium in Idaho and is spending his days off here in Oregon getting the exhibits built, setting up the water filters and bringing in the marine life.

He's working seven days a week in two different states, which is certainly exhausting, but he said it's all worth it because it's something he's passionate about.

"It's really tough but we'd like to get it open," he said. "It's just fun to do."

The aquarium will be an educational place where kids can touch the sea life and even help with feeding. The hands on approach to learning is something that's important to Covino, who has six kids of his own.

What Admission Will Be

Ages 12 and older - $10.95
Ages 6 to 11 - $8.95
Ages 2 to 5 - $4.95
Children under 2 - Free
Seniors - $9.95
Military - $9.95

Early Bird Deals

Advance season passes - 50% off for a limited time
Daily season pass giveaways on Facebook

"Every exhibit we (will) have is designed for little kids to come up, put their hands in, touch the starfish, touch the anemones, have the fish eat right out of their hands and touch the stingrays," he said.

Right now a shark exhibit, sting ray tank, puffin exhibit, rain forest room and much more are in the works. In addition to marine life (like hammerhead sharks, sting rays, fish and sea anemones), there will be the normal types of creatures you would see in a rain forest - tree frogs and exotic birds, for example. Covino said they also hope to get an otter and endangered sea turtle.

The final figures on the project aren't in yet but Covino said right now he and his partners are in the $1 million range. While that might sound like a lot, he said compared to larger aquariums where the costs can run into the tens of millions of dollars at startup, that's a pretty good price tag.

Why pick a vacant restaurant in Milwaukie to build the aquarium? Well, it's on busy Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard for one and secondly, there are plenty of families in our area who might be attracted by having an aquarium right here in town.

"There are lots of kids that live up and down this road," Covino said. "There are a lot of kids that live within 10 miles of this area. And there are certainly a lot of schools."

We asked Covino what kind of response he's been getting from the community and he said the excitement is building. Just take a look at some of the comments from the aquarium's Facebook page:

Julie McMillen Sausville - I can't believe you're right down the road from where I live.

Erin O'Donohoe-Davis - Our kids are going to like this - can't wait till you open!

Paula Kay Moore - So excited! I've already purchased my passes! Now when we don't have time to go to the coast, we can have the coast 'come' to us!

Doug Davis - Bring it on, we are ready!

Megan Robertson Webb - We are so excited for you guys to open! My son is 5 and watches the show Tanked all the time. It's going to be great having you guys so close!

Now of course with a new business will come new jobs. Covino said he and his partners will be looking at hiring around 30 to 40 people in November or December, just before opening. They have already hired an aquarium specialist from California to manage the facility and of course have provided jobs for a handful of laborers during the build, most of them local.