AMERICA'S MOST VISITED AQUARIUMS
Source: Association of Zoos & Aquariums, based upon 2010 attendance
AQUARIUM AT A GLANCE
Opening: May 1992
Expansion: Ocean Journey added a second, saltwater building in 2005
Staff: 150 employees
Investments: $45 million to build initial aquarium; $35 million to add Ocean Journey
Animals: More than 12,000 species of living animals
Revenues: $19 million in 2010
Capital funding: $45 million initially raised to build aquarium; more than $30 million donated since for expansions, new exhibits, upgrades and research projects
Attendance: 657,443 in 2011
Economic impact: $77.4 million a year
Source: Tennessee Aquarium, Impacts Inc. surveys
Chattanooga may have begun on the river, but its biggest draw for tourists during most of the 20th century was its mountaintop, railroad and Civil War attractions.
That changed 20 years ago this week when the Tennessee Aquarium opened as the world's largest freshwater aquarium at the city's birthplace at Ross's Landing.
In its first year, the aquarium drew more than 1.1 million visitors - 50 percent more than planners had forecast. With its glass peaks towering over the Tennessee River, the aquarium quickly became both the city's No. 1 tourist attraction and a signature of Chattanooga's downtown skyline.
Although attendance has dropped in recent years with more competition and a weaker economy, the Tennessee Aquarium remains among America's top 10 most popular aquariums with more than 19 million visits since its 1992 opening and another 7.2 million visits to the Aquarium's IMAX theater.
The riverfront attraction generates about $19 million a year in revenues and employs a staff of 150 employees. Charles Arant, a former IBM manager for 28 years who became CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium in 1995, says he tries to run the attraction like a business.
But contrary to what a recent survey showed most people think, the Tennessee Aquarium is a nonprofit organization funded primarily by ticket revenue, concession sales and private donations.
"We try to run this like a for-profit business and keep it running on a sound financial basis," Arant said. "But we do try to raise outside funds to invest in ourselves and upgrade our facilities."
Private foundations, corporations, individuals and other donors have given more than $75 million for capital campaigns to build, upgrade and expand the aquarium.
Arant contends those investments are easily repaid by the more than $77 million a year out-of-town guests who come to the aquarium spend on hotels, restaurants and local stores.
"Financially, I think the aquarium has been a success because we are able to generate the necessary revenue to operate the aquarium as a first-class tourist and research facility," Arant said. "We aren't able to generate enough to make a lot of investments for new exhibits or expansions."
DREAMING BIG FROM THE START
The aquarium initially was conceived in the late 1980s as a smaller facility to be built with private and public funds. At the urging of then Gov. Lamar Alexander, aquarium organizers in the 1980s decided to make the Chattanooga aquarium on the banks of the Tennessee River the world's biggest freshwater aquarium as a unique attraction.
With the backing of Jack Lupton, once owner of the largest Coca-Cola bottling empire in the world, the Tennessee Aquarium ultimately was privately funded, surrounded by a $10 million public park.
The Ocean Journey, the second building with saltwater and butterfly exhibits, was added in 2005 as part of the $120 million 21st Century Waterfront plan.
The Tennessee Aquarium is like about half of America's aquariums, which are operated as nonprofit identities, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But unlike most, the Tennessee Aquarium doesn't receive any direct government support, although it does receive government research grants and did share in part of the overall public-private partnership of funding for the 21st Century Waterfront plan.
Paul Brock, chairman of the 14-member aquarium board, said the board wants to raise another $20 million over the next several years to help sustain and upgrade the aquarium for the future. Major donors are being approached, and a more widespread community campaign soon will be launched, he said.
"We want to make sure we have the resources to sustain this extremely valuable asset for years to come in our community," Brock said. "Community support built the aquarium, and we want to maintain and build on that community support to ensure the aquarium is strong and viable for the next 20 years."
COMPETING FOR TOURISTS
The Tennessee Aquarium has faced growing competition through its history with a half dozen other aquariums built within a day's drive of Chattanooga.
Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies opened in Gatlinburg in 2000, three years after Ripley's opened its first aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The biggest drop in attendance at the Tennessee Aquarium came after the $250 million Georgia Aquarium opened in November 2005 just 120 miles to the south. The Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta is the world's biggest aquarium, nearly 10 times the size of the Tennessee Aquarium. The Atlanta aquarium draws more than 2 million visitors a year and is America's most visited aquarium.
In 2006, attendance at Chattanooga's aquarium fell by more than 30 percent even with the addition of the Ocean Journey the previous year. Arant said 2006 is the only year the aquarium had an operating loss.
The Chattanooga aquarium has benefited by its unique appeal as the biggest freshwater aquarium and one of the few located on a major river. Cindy Todd, director of marketing for the aquarium, said visitors give high marks to the overall Chattanooga experience on the waterfront and the value of the attraction.
Surveys of visitors by Impacts Inc. rate the Tennessee Aquarium No. 1 for overall guest satisfaction, narrowly beating out the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
Despite such plaudits, however, the Tennessee Aquarium's attendance declined to its lowest level in its 20-year history last year.
"I've learned over the past 20 years that the external factors play a huge role," Todd said. "You have to stay out there with the right message and the right product, but if people feel bad about the economy or their family budget won't accommodate a trip, they are likely to stay home. We've been battling with public confidence."
Arant said aquarium attendance is up so far this year, and he expects the number of visitors will top 750,000 again in a couple of years, up from 657,443 last year.
The Tennessee Aquarium is located in a smaller city and farther away from the ocean than most of the country's biggest aquariums.
"I think that, given its market size, the Tennessee Aquarium attendance number is truly impressive," said Steve Feldman, senior vice president at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.