This post originally appeared on BMA on November 30th, 2005. If you would like to read all the posts in the BMA series, click here.
Bernie Marcus can’t stop smiling.
The Home Depot founder is beaming as he enjoys the $250 million dollar gift he’s given the city of Atlanta, the newly opened Georgia Aquarium. And he’s not the only one to have visited the world’s largest aquarium. The aquarium was expecting 10,000 visitors for its opening day last wednesday, and officials believe they beat that number. Two million people were forecast to enjoy the attraction next year, and the aquarium may revise that number upwards as well.
The aquarium is the centerpiece of the city’s plan to reinvigorate Atlanta’s tourism efforts. “Atlanta has never been a major tourist destination,” Marcus says, “because there’s never been a major draw.” Marcus feels the Georgia Aquarium could become that ‘must-see’ destination that will turn on the tourism pipeline that city officials are hoping to develop.
Many experts are betting the addition of the world’s largest aquarium will be the magic bullet that the city has been looking for. And that has Atlanta’s city leaders very happy.
But 2 hours to the north, another city and their leaders are casting a very concerned eye to the south. While Atlanta is hoping the Georgia Aquarium will boost the city’s tourism dollars, the stakes are much higher for Chattanooga, where theTennessee Aquarium has literally reinvented the city. Once labelled as ‘America’s dirtiest city’ by former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, the aquarium began a renassiance for the city when it was opened in 1992. Since that time, over 100 shops and restaurants have sprung up surrounding the aquarium, shifting the city’s image from being dirty, to being one of the nation’s cleanest and friendliest.
And it’s that image that the Tennessee Aquarium thinks will be its best weapon against the Atlanta Aquarium. While Chattanooga can point to the clean and friendly atmosphere downtown, these are the exact qualities that many visitors say Atlanta’s downtown area lacks. And these assertions weren’t lost on Marcus, who campaigned vigorously to end ‘aggressive’ panhandling by the homeless downtown, even to the dismay of some city officials.
Of course there’s also the costs to consider. A one-day pass for a family of 4 would cost you $57.90 at the Tennessee Aquarium, and $89.50 at the Georgia Aquarium. Add parking and you approach $100 for the day.
Still, it may not matter. The city will be bringing in several high-profile events to the downtown area, such as hosting the Sugar Bowl this year, the World of Coke exhibit, and starting in 2007, the city will host the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The city is hoping that it can bring in so many popular attractions that visitors will overlook the cost and atmosphere, to experience the area.
With the Tennessee Aquarium claiming that 25% of their current visitors come from the Atlanta area, the success of the Georgia Aquarium, and Atlanta’s ability to change its downtown image, could eventually decide the fates of both cities. For now, city leaders in both areas will have to play a very nervous game of ‘wait and see’. Rick Nall, VP Marketing, Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau: “I feel like, and I feel like many others in the community feel like- probably the (Georgia) aquarium will have some impact, we just don’t know what it is.”