Tennessee Aquarium celebrates 25 years

The landscape of Chattanooga's downtown is featured in this May 1, 2017 photo.

Before the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992, many Chattanoogans had little reason to venture downtown. At the time, my 8-year-old self had no idea of the impact it might have on my hometown, but like many other families in my elementary school carpool line, we proudly touted our charter membership status with a bumper sticker on the back of our Suburban.

On my first visit, I could barely contain my excitement as the seemingly never-ending escalator carried me to the first exhibit, finally depositing me on the top floor of the building which has since become the iconic representation of the city's renaissance.

Milestones in Tennessee Aquarium's 25-year history

1985 - Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan, which includes a recommendation for a riverfront aquarium, is finalized. 1988 - Construction begins on the Tennessee Aquarium. 1992 - River Journey building opens. 1996 - IMAX Theater opens; aquarium's research and conservation department, now called the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, is founded. 1998 - Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep exhibit opens. 2002 - Seahorse exhibit opens. 2005 - Ocean Journey building opens. 2014 - Appalachian Cove Forest exhibit opens, replacing a small river otter exhibit with the larger River Otter Falls, featuring an artificial waterfall, free-flying birds and a variety of native fish species. 2011 - Aquarium's Serve & Protect program is established to educate the public about sustainable seafood. 2015 - Alligator Bayou exhibit opens featuring American alligators and snapping turtles. 2016 - Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute facility opens on Baylor School campus. 2017 - Lemur Forest exhibit opens; Aquarium welcomes its 23 millionth guest on April 17.

Thanks to the foresight of private investors such as Jack Lupton and nonprofits such as the Lyndhurst Foundation, over its 25 years in existence, the aquarium has spurred $5 billion in private investment in Chattanooga's downtown, according to Kim White of the River City Company, which focuses on economic development in the downtown area.

"It was definitely a turning point for our city," she says of the opening of the aquarium. "It was the most catalytic project for the whole of downtown Chattanooga."

Along with attracting about a million people a year to spend money in the downtown area, the aquarium's main contribution to Chattanooga was the change in people's attitudes about the city, White says. "It was a bold thing that really changed what people in Chattanooga felt was possible."

Just as it took the entire community to make the aquarium become a reality 25 years ago, Chattanoogans' continued support is essential to fulfilling the vision the nonprofit organization's leadership has for the next quarter-century, says Tennessee Aquarium spokesman Thom Benson. Over the past 18 months, the aquarium has added its Lemur Forest exhibit, opened its Conservation Institute and upgraded the technology in its IMAX theater.

"We're looking at what new exhibits we can bring to the experience and further increase its impact in the region," says Benson, recalling that when he first visited Chattanooga, he felt it was a shame that the city's downtown didn't match the beauty of its natural surroundings. Thanks to the aquarium, the Scenic City can now rest assured its moniker holds true.