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Atlanta Hopes Aquarium Acts as Downtown Lure

June 08, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Never mind that the ocean is four hours away, or that the nearest river skirts the city. Landlocked Atlanta hopes a giant aquarium can help enliven its maligned downtown.

Backers of the planned Georgia Aquarium say the $200-million project, the brainchild of a co-founder of Home Depot Inc., might be what is needed to kick life into a district that is chockablock with hotels and office towers but offers little for visitors and residents to do.

Although conventions are a big part of the city's economy, with nearly 8 million overnight guests annually, many visitors flee the downtown hotels to dine and shop in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood five miles north. Most residents overlook their downtown for nighttime entertainment, except for basketball and hockey games at Philips Arena or football at the Georgia Dome. The martini-bar set heads for trendy Midtown, a section that is also the museum and theater district.

As a result, downtown ends up largely deserted after dark, despite hopes that a construction binge connected with the 1996 Olympics would ignite a long-awaited revival. Although some buildings have been converted to lofts and apartments, downtown residents remain few and the scene for pedestrians is generally bleak.

"When we got here Tuesday night the streets were rolled up. There was nothing within walking distance," said Eileen Reinhard, a New York editor in town for a convention.

Visitors can tour CNN's headquarters or stop at Underground Atlanta -- a once-lively collection of shops, restaurants and bars -- but even boosters acknowledge that Atlanta's tourist sites are limited. Stays tend to be short, averaging three nights.

"This is not a place that people think of coming to. People don't say, 'Let's spend the weekend in Atlanta,' " said Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist who is the driving force behind the aquarium.

Marcus offered his assessment during a groundbreaking ceremony late last month for the aquarium, which is to exhibit more than 50,000 fish -- making it one of the world's largest collections-- in 5 million gallons of fresh and salt water. Planners expect at least 2 million visitors yearly upon opening in 2005.

The aquarium is being built in conjunction with a new World of Coca-Cola, a beverage museum that will move from another part of downtown. The twin projects instantly will become Atlanta's biggest tourist attraction, occupying 20 acres next to Centennial Olympic Park, a grassy expanse built for the Olympics with brick walks and reflecting pools. The closest neighbors are a newly opened children's museum, luxury condominiums and some weed-edged parking lots.

In pursuing the ark-shaped aquarium, Atlanta hopes to follow cities nationwide that have revived moribund cores by building aquariums and attracting related development, such as restaurants and hotels. An hour and a half to the north in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Tennessee Aquarium has spurred $1 billion in spending since it opened in 1992. The National Aquarium, pivotal in the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in the early 1980s, is credited with kicking off the aquarium trend.

Since then, more than two dozen free-standing aquariums have opened around the country, including in spots such as Newport, Ky., a suburb of Cincinnati, and Duluth, Minn.

"We have a potential here of for the first time creating an environment where people will want to come here from other states -- the same way they go to Baltimore, the same way they go to Boston, the same way they go to Chattanooga," Marcus said.

But not all the aquariums have been as successful. Ocean Journey in Denver filed for bankruptcy protection last year in the face of debts totaling $62.5 million. Two years ago, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which opened strongly in 1998, got the city of Long Beach to refinance it and take over ownership amid concerns that it might not be able to meet debt payments.

Aquarium attendance has gone flat nationwide, in large part because of a tourism slump since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2000, nearly 36 million people visited the 33 free-standing aquariums belonging to the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. The Silver Spring, Md.-based association said surveys show attendance fell slightly at zoos and aquariums last year.

The growing number of aquariums has prompted some to wonder how many can thrive. Complicating matters is that aquarium displays are expensive to build and more difficult to change or add than zoo exhibits or museum showings, said John Morey, an executive with Morey and Associates, a Charleston, S.C.-based firm that conducts market research for cultural attractions, including aquariums.

Morey said a key to success will be to get local residents to make repeat visits, even as the sprouting of new aquariums has made them less novel.

"There are a lot more aquariums today," he said. "How many times can you go see a leafy sea-dragon? That's a big challenge."

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