published Friday, April 27th, 2012

Tennessee Aquarium 20th anniversary

The opening of a remarkable new exhibit and a party on Saturday will help commemorate the Tennessee Aquarium's 20th anniversary. Those events and others to come deserve widespread support. The aquarium and the role it has played in the community over the last two decades are worthy of celebration. The attraction has helped change the face of the city and region and prompted a renaissance that has made Chattanooga a national and international prototype for riverfront development and for community and economic progress.

River Giants, the new exhibit, took almost two years to create, and cost about $800,000. The freshwater exhibit will house what can only be called behemoths -- fish from around the world that can reach 9 or 10 feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds. Like the jellyfish and penguin exhibits that preceded it, River Giants should be another successful showcase for the Tennessee Aquarium.

That success is notable. In its two decades, more than 19 million people have visited the aquarium. The IMAX Theater and River Gorge Explorer, a boat that plies the waters of the Tennessee River, both affiliated with the aquarium, have drawn additional millions. The economic impact for the community is immense.

Officials estimate that the aquarium has a direct economic impact of $77.4 million a year on Chattanooga. In addition, the aquarium has spawned further development along both sides of its riverbank home and along major thoroughfares in the central city and on the Northshore. Indeed, more than $2 billion has been invested in the Chattanooga Riverfront area since the aquarium opened in 1992. It is unlikely that the city and region would have experienced that level of investment and development if the aquarium had not led the way.

The 20th anniversary celebration honors the vision of aquarium founding father Jack Lupton and all those who joined his visionary quest to build what some derisively called a "fish tank" as a catalyst for growth. Even Lupton, it seems, was amazed by what followed. "People ask if what we have today is what we envisioned in 1992," he said on the 10th anniversary of the aquarium. "The answer is no. It has gone beyond our wildest dreams."

Ten years after Lupton made those remarks, the dream continues.

The aquarium continues to attract visitors and to help make the city and region one of the most popular and affordable tourist destinations in the country. The aquarium is far more than a singular attraction, though.

It is an educational and research institution that serves from pre-school to graduate degree level through still expanding outreach education and conservation programs. The Tennessee Aquarium's accessibility, exhibits and wide range of services are widely admired. They've won awards for excellence and community service, and a ranking that currently makes the facility the highest rated aquarium in the nation for overall visitor satisfaction.

That praise and those awards come at some cost. The aquarium, a non-profit organization, is an enterprise with a multimillion-dollar budget. It meets expenses through the cost of admissions, various fees and what officials rightly call "generous" community support. That operating model, however, is becoming somewhat difficult to maintain in the face of rising competition from other aquariums and from heightened competition for the leisure time dollar. Some changes are in the wind.

Aquarium officials say they don't want to change the current operating model -- which still produces a strong financial foundation for the attraction -- but that they do want to undertake projects that will strengthen the aquarium in the long-term. To that end, the aquarium will create a multimillion Fund for Excellence designed to underwrite future growth and capital projects. It will also create an endowment fund, and look for strategic partnerships to better utilize current and future resources.

That's sound planning for any enterprise. It's an especially wise path for an institution that will need additional funds if it is to continue to grow.

The 20th anniversary of the Tennessee Aquarium is a time to look back and to look forward. The last 20 years have proved the validity of a vision that saw the aquarium as the linchpin of community growth. The goal of the next 20 years is to extend that dream and propel the "Chattanooga Experience" that is tied so closely to the aquarium.

With continued community support, that aspiration likely will come true.

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