TENNESSEE AQUARIUM—CHATTANOOGA

April 24, 2017


Chattanooga, Tennessee is home to the Tennessee Aquarium.  We are remarkably fortunate to have this “fish tank” for many reasons.  First and foremost, the Aquarium has demonstrated one significant fact—it was the anchor for Chattanooga’s renaissance.  Chattanooga is no longer just a stop on your way to Florida.  It has become a destination for hundreds of thousands of non-citizens on an annual basis.  The aquarium gives tourists and residents something to do during and on week days and weekends.  The digital picture below will give you some idea as to the striking design of the facility.

It is hard to believe this week marks the twenty-fifth (25) anniversary of the aquarium.  I can remember the time prior to construction when many wondered whether or not the facility could support itself with visitors.  How would the City pay the employees?  How would the city maintain the facility?  Why take up precious land when it could be used for manufacturing and production?  All of these questions and more were asked—and answered.

The Tennessee Aquarium has been at the epicenter of the city’s downtown revival.  That fact is reflected with the knowledge that since its opening on May 1, 1992, more than twenty-three (23) million people have visited what has become, by far, the region’s biggest attraction.  In my opinion, the exhibits are much better than the aquarium in Atlanta and the Smokies. (Just my opinion.)

Let’s take a look at several facts that will highlight this marvelous addition to our city.

  • A new economic study estimates those visitors have pumped nearly $3.3 billion into Hamilton County’s economy and helped spur more than $5 billion in private investment downtown. Last year alone, out-of-state tourists coming to visit the Tennessee Aquarium are estimated to have had an economic impact totaling $115.7 million, according to a study by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development.
  • As you can see from the following graphic, the aquarium is just where it should be— right downtown.

Before the aquarium was built, you could go downtown and there would not be one soul on Broad or Market streets.  Broad and Market and the “main drags” in Chattanooga.  Today, those downtown streets are filled with people, even on most weeknights, and most of that has to do with what began with the aquarium.  After 6:00 P.M. any night, go downtown and try to find a parking spot on the street.  The garages have ample parking but on the streets-not so much.  The aquarium has also attracted a huge number of restaurants, bars, food trucks, dance halls, etc etc.  The vision our community leaders had to transform our city began with the aquarium, and without the aquarium we would not be where we are today.

  • The aquarium employs more than two hundred (200) people with seven hundred and fifty (750) volunteers.
  • The facility is home to more than twelve thousand (12,000) animals representing eight hundred (800) species.
  • Annual revenues = $25.2 million.
  • Mitch Patel, president of Chattanooga-based Vision Hospitality Corp., credits the aquarium for much of the growth in the city’s $1 billion-a-year tourism industry.
  • The aquarium’s educational and research mission has expanded its scope and footprint to add research and conservation institutes and extra attractions, such as the IMAX Theater, Ocean Discovery saltwater tanks and the River Gorge Explorer boat trips in the Tennessee River gorge.
  • Chattanooga downtown boosters also have added to its appeal with the development of Coolidge, Renaissance and the Tennessee Riverwalk parks; the Children’s Discovery Museum; the Walnut Street and Holmberg pedestrian bridges; the AT&T baseball stadium for the Chattanooga Lookouts, the expansion of the Hunter Museum of American Art and growth of the Bluff View Art District, among other successes.
  • There has been $5 billion of private investment in our downtown area since 1992, including a billion dollars of projects announced in the past year and a half. That’s just extraordinary, but it shows the power of finding what is authentic and fits your community. That’s what the aquarium has been for Chattanooga.

As a catalyst for growth, the aquarium and other attractions helped to increase the hotel business in Hamilton County nearly fourfold. In 1991, the last full year before the aquarium opened, Hamilton County hotels captured forty-seven ($47) million in total revenues. Last year they generated $187 million in revenues, according to the Hamilton County Trustee’s Office and before the aquarium opened, the only major hotel built downtown in decades was the Marriott, which that opened in 1986 next to the Trade Center. For a major city, even a small city such as Chattanooga, this is big.   Since 1992, more than a dozen hotels have been added across Chattanooga, and more than $140 million in new hotels are being built or in the pipeline in Hamilton County, including five luxury or boutique hotels downtown.

“Jack’s fish tank” questioned

As mentioned above, some were initially skeptical of the aquarium idea, which was proposed by architectural students at the Urban Design Studio in 1981 and later embraced as one of the goals in the community planning process organized by Chattanooga Venture in the 1980s. When the aquarium was pitched to then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander among a group of community projects, he urged local leaders, including Chattanooga Coca-Cola magnate Jack Lupton, to make the attraction distinctive and world-class.   Lupton, Chairman of the Lyndhurst Foundation and other backers agreed to build the facility with private money and contributed ten ($10) million from the foundation and eleven ($11) million of his own money.  He also led the forty-five ($45) million fundraising drive.

The Tennessee Aquarium was designed by Cambridge Seven Associates, which had previously designed the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the New England Aquarium in Boston, to tell the story of aquatic life from the headwaters of the Smoky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. The 130,000-square-foot River Journey structure is the equivalent of a 12-story building and follows the path of a raindrop from high in the Appalachian Mountains to the ocean.  The digitals below will give you some idea as to what’s inside.

Many of its tanks and exhibits bear the names of corporate or individual donors. Memberships, admission fees and ongoing capital campaigns help pay to operate and expand the aquarium and support its educational research and outreach.

The 21st Century Waterfront, which included the thirty ($30) million Ocean Journey structure built in 2005, revamped the Ross’s Landing are to include a riverfront park, walkway, pier and boat docks, opening up the waterfront to pedestrians and Chattanooga’s downtown to boats.

The aquarium quickly won over most skeptics, topping its first-year attendance goal of 650,000 people within its first four months and topping out at nearly 1.5 million visitors in the first year. It consistently has ranked among the nation’s top aquariums in visitor satisfaction surveys. Please keep in mind the population of Chattanooga is 167, 674.  This will give you some perspective as to why the facility is so very important to our city.  How many other communities of our size can say they attract over a million visitors per year?  Think about and then, plan your next trip to Chattanooga.

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2 Responses to “TENNESSEE AQUARIUM—CHATTANOOGA”


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