Tennessee Aquarium - Chattanooga's biggest tourist magnet - turns 30 with Saturday celebration

Thirty years ago this week, lines of children dressed as bass, bluegill and other aquatic animals wiggled and giggled down Broad Street to the thrumming refrain of a marching band to mark the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium.

As thousands flocked to the downtown riverfront that day during the Festival of the Rivers, Chattanooga opened the world's largest freshwater aquarium in a bold, if not audacious, attempt to help revive Chattanooga's downtown.

The $45 million privately-funded riverfront attraction was projected to attract about 600,000 visitors a year to an area of town that had been in decline for years.

In its first year, the aquarium more than doubled that projection, drawing 1.5 million visitors to quickly emerge as the biggest tourism draw in a region long known for its Lookout Mountain attractions and historic battlefields. The aquarium's initial success and subsequent expansions have spurred the addition of dozens of other downtown riverfront attractions, restaurants, hotels and housing developments over the past three decades.

As the aquarium prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary on Saturday with another all-day riverfront festival, a new economic study estimates it has pumped nearly $4.9 billion into Chattanooga's economy since 1992, including $146 million of direct spending last year alone by out-of-town visitors lured to Chattanooga by the aquarium.

Mitch Patel, CEO of Vision Hospitality which operates 14 hotels in Hamilton County and is developing plans for hotels on the riverfront and the Southside, credits the aquarium for much of the growth of Chattanooga's tourism industry and downtown development.

"It's made a huge positive impact for our industry and for our community," Patel said in an interview at his corporate office just a few blocks from the Tennessee Aquarium. "The aquarium was the catalyst for the whole riverfront district. It gave confidence to developers like me to build hotels in downtown Chattanooga. Before the aquarium opened, there were just not any new hotels or even many apartments built near the river in many years."

Fishing for dollars

$4.88 billion — Aquarium’s total economic impact since 1992$146 million — 2021 annual economic impact on Hamilton County directly assessable to the Aquarium$133 million — Aquarium’s economic impact in its first year ($261 million, adjusted for inflation)26 million — Number of guests who have visited the Aquarium since May 1, 1992Source: Economic study of the aquarium prepared by Rachel Fu, director of the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute and chairwoman of the tourism, hospitality and event management program at the University of Florida.

Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said the aquarium has helped propel Hamilton County's $1.5 billion-a-year tourism industry while improving the quality of life for local residents.

"The level of impact the aquarium has on conservation efforts, educational reach, revitalization of our downtown and ongoing economic impact is incredible," White said in a report on the aquarium's 30th anniversary. "The aquarium, combined with our legacy attractions, took Chattanooga to the next level."

White said every day more than 43,000 visitors now come to Chattanooga and spend an estimated $4.1 million a day.

Keith Sanford, a founding director of the Tennessee Aquarium who took over as president of the aquarium six years ago, remembers when downtown Chattanooga lost its major retail anchors like Sears, JCPenney and Loveman's department store. At the time, "people said nothing good happens north of Fourth Street" in the central city, he said.

Sanford, a former banker whose aquarium office is now located in the once-blighted area, credits the community's willingness to fund the aquarium to help revive downtown.

"The aquarium would not exist today without the vision and support of our community," he said in an interview.

A community celebration

The Tennessee Aquarium's 30th Anniversary Community Celebration is planned for Saturday from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. on the Aquarium Plaza and on the Chattanooga Green across Chestnut Street from the River Journey building.

A partnership with the Walk Run Pedal Jamz Festival, the celebration will begin with a 30-minute walk, followed by a 30-minute run and then a 30-kilometer bike ride along the riverfront. At 10 a.m., the Chattanooga River Market will open. In addition to perusing stalls stocked with locally produced products and treats, attendees can participate in family activities and eat at food trucks.

A slate of musical performances will kick off at 11 a.m., including acts such as soul artist and "The Voice" winner Chris Blue, Nashville-based pop singer Jonny Lucas and Chattanooga native Willie Kitchens, the former lead vocalist of The Impressions. The evening will conclude with a fireworks display at 9 p.m.

Sanford said Saturday's celebration comes as the aquarium prepares for a rebound in travel this year following more than two years of pandemic-related challenges.

In 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium was forced to turn away visitors for nearly 12 weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep through the country.

Although guests were not allowed in for three months to limit the spread of the virus, the costs of maintaining more than 12,000 animals representing almost 800 species at the world's largest freshwater aquarium continued.

"We were spending $400,000 a week with zero revenue," Sanford recalled. "It was very scary. Going into COVID when Easy Bistro moved, 212 Market, Moe's and Bluewater Grille shut down and Hennen's quit serving lunch, I was really terrified about what was happening on this end of downtown."

Even when the aquarium reopened in June 2020, it limited the number of visitors to allow for social distancing.

As travel rebounds this summer, the nonprofit attraction - which has drawn 26 million visitors since it opened - is expecting another banner year. Aquarium officials project slightly more visitors this year than in the last pre-pandemic year in 2019 when there were about 780,000 visitors.

Last year, the aquarium recorded 668,709 visitors. Although that was less than half the attendance levels in some previous years, Sanford said the aquarium was able to pare some expenses and use aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Protection program to book its most profitable year ever in 2021 and make up for the losses suffered in the previous year.

Officials are far more optimistic about the business outlook in 2022.

"Chattanooga is a great drive-to tourist destination and I think people are eager to get out and travel again," Sanford said. "We're coming back and we expect a very strong summer."

"Jack's fish tank" questioned

The downtown attraction has continually defied its skeptics since it opened on the banks of the Tennessee River on May 1, 1992.

Some were initially skeptical of the aquarium idea, which was proposed by architectural students from the University of Tennessee, 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.

When anti-tax activists such as Edna Taylor questioned the need for taxpayer funding and derided the project as "Jack Lupton's fish tank, " Lupton and other backers agreed to build it with private money. Lupton, chairman of the Lyndhurst Foundation, contributed $10 million from the foundation and $11 million of his own money, and he led the $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.

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 $30 million Ocean Journey structure built in 2005, helped revamp Ross's Landing to include a riverfront park, walkway, pier and boat docks, opening the waterfront to pedestrians and Chattanooga's downtown to boats.

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, which was discontinued because of low attendance.

The aquarium has remained distinctive in its focus on river aquatic life and its unique display of the Appalachian region.

By 2005 the aquarium was doubled in size to add saltwater exhibits, a hummingbird and butterfly garden and an array of other aquatic exhibits. Consistently ranked among the top aquariums in the country, the Tennessee Aquarium has maintained its appeal even as the Ripley's Aquarium in Gatlinburg opened in 2000 and the Georgia Aquarium was added in Atlanta in 2005.

"We're always thinking about what we can do to make it more enjoyable, exciting and what we can do next to be better," said Jackson Andrews, the director of husbandry and operations at the Tennessee Aquarium, who came to Chattanooga in 1991 to help open the aquarium after working at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Andrews said the Chattanooga aquarium has repeatedly ranked among the top aquariums in the country in guest satisfaction and staff hospitality. Sanford said the Tennessee Aquarium has tried to remain fresh by adding new exhibits every other year to give visitors another reason to return.

"We have a new exhibit we're working on that will probably open in about a year, but we already have raised enough funds to pay for that," Sanford said of the new $1.4 million exhibit to be announced later this year. "The aquarium and our community have lifted each other up. We're excited by all we've accomplished together in the last 30 years."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.

Did You Know?

* Benny, one of the aquarium’s romp of North American River Otters, is named after British actor Benedict Cumberbatch.* Stingray Bay, the aquarium’s largest touch tank, was once called Shark Island.* In 2007, EarthCam named the aquarium’s Penguin Rock video stream as “One of the 25 Most Interesting Webcams of 2007.”* Cypress trees damaged by Hurricane Hugo were installed in Delta Country when the aquarium opened.* Architectural Record praised the aquarium as a “cathedral of conservation.”* Atlantic Salmon destined for an exhibit in the Rivers of the World gallery were the first fish to be placed in any exhibit.

More Info

By the numbers$45 million — cost to open the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992 ($91 million, adjusted for inflation)$14 million — cost to build the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater and Environmental Learning Lab ($25.4 million, adjusted for inflation)$30 million — cost to build Ocean Journey ($46.3 million, adjusted for inflation)5,874 — size, in square feet, of the IMAX 3D Theater’s screen14 — number of IMAX 3D theaters that existed worldwide when the aquarium’s IMAX 3D Theater opened618,000 — gallons in the Secret Reef exhibit, the aquarium’s largest tank32 — depth, in feet, of the Secret Reef100,000 — pounds of salt and other minerals used to create the Secret Reef marine environment20 — critically endangered Beal’s four-eyed turtles have hatched at the Aquarium53 — endangered four-eyed turtles hatched at the aquarium160 — weight, in pounds, of the aquarium’s male alligator snapping turtle300 — approximate number of fish the Tennessee Aquarium donated in 2005 to restock the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina500 — approximate number of active volunteers at the aquarium305,000 — number of lake sturgeon released by the aquarium and its partners since 200030,300 — lake sturgeon specifically raised and released by the aquarium53 —engraved medallions built into the exterior of River Journey that symbolize Chattanooga’s important historical moments13.5 — distance, in miles, covered by the River Journey escalator as it cycles each day