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Jim Bissett III: ‘A true captain of industry’

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Jim Bissett III (third from right) next to Councilman George Gabrielsen and Councilwoman Jodi Giglio as Supervisor Sean Walter cuts the ribbon for the new Butterfly exhibit that opened the same night as the Hyatt Place Hotel back in July.

Jim Bissett III’s father, James Jr. and mother, Joan, founded Bissett Nursery in Holtsville in 1964.

What started as a family-run operation out of a three-acre backyard later became one of the largest horticulture distribution centers on the East Coast, which today employs over 170 people. And that was due in no small part to the work and vision Jim Bissett III, who came on as a manager and co-owner in the spring of 1982. (Read a history of Bissett Nursery.)

Bissett Nursery now has two locations, Holtsville and Dix Hills, which opened in 1995. Around the same time the Dix Hills branch opened, Mr. Bissett, an avid scuba diver and boater, began wondering why a region surrounded “by all this water,” as he put it, had nothing to showcase its connection to the sea, he said in a January 2o11 News-Review article.

He decided an East End aquarium could draw visitors, and he teamed up with Joe Petrocelli of Long Island’s Petrocelli Construction of Ronkonkoma to develop the project.

The aquarium took about five years to make it through the review process before construction began in 1999 on a 3.2 acre parcel on the Peconic River. Atlantis Marine World Aquarium opened a year later, featuring a 120,000-gallon main tank and several side exhibitions that played to the theme of the lost city of Atlantis.

“It’s not a science center,” Mr. Bissett said in January. “It has a theatrical theme” that helps make it fun for kids and families.

Until recently, marketing was aimed strictly at Nassau and Suffolk counties because of limited hotel space in the area, he explained.

With the adjoining Hyatt East End, which was completed this summer, marketing efforts were since extended to NYC.

Mr. Bissett, a North Fork transplant, and Mr. Petrocelli have said the aquarium had been drawing some 600,000 visitors to downtown Riverhead annually. The two were honored as News-Review People of the Year the year the aquarium broke ground, and have also received Business People of the Year honors and the distinguished Gold Key award from the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Petrocelli did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment on his business partner’s death.

John Galla, a longtime Wading River resident who is now head of the town Republican Party, said in an interview that he had first met Mr. Bissett about 15 years ago “when Atlantis Marine World was just a twinkle in his eye.”

Mr. Bissett, a big supporter of the party, had at the time enlisted Mr. Galla to help shoot a film of the downtown Riverhead area, as well the Peconic River and bays.

“I’m not sure if it was for financing for the aquarium or what,” Mr. Galla recalled. “But there we were out on a boat with his father, shooting a video of the river and the bays and what it all meant for the area.”

He said he was also impressed with the family’s massive nursery operation in Holtsville, which Mr. Galla had also visited.

“It was like this pocket of beautiful farmland and gigantic farm buildings,” Mr. Galla said. “Simply put, he was a visionary. He was a true man of vision. Walt Disney-esque is almost the perfect description. When you walk into the Hyatt and aquarium you feel like you’re in Walt Disney World; you don’t feel like you’re on Long Island.

He was a true captain of industry.”

Known for his modesty, Mr. Bissett said, when he was honored as Entrepreneur of the Year by the Advancement for Commerce, Industry and Technology last December, “Although this is a personal award, I believe that it belongs as much to … my partner, Joe Petrocelli, Atlantis Marine World’s owner and co-founder, and the teams at both Atlantis Marine World and Bissett Nursery.”

According to published reports, Mr. Bissett had three children, now all in their 20s, Dominique, Danielle and James IV.

He lived on a sprawling estate on Cox Neck Road in Mattituck.

Check the Dec. 22 edition of the Riverhead News-Review for additional information.

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