In the 25 years since it rose on a once-neglected riverfront, the Tennessee Aquarium has become emblematic of Chattanooga’s astounding renaissance.
When it was conceived in the 1980s, the Aquarium seemed like a textbook improbability for a community still haunted by its ignoble designation in 1969 as America’s most-polluted city. The grand opening of the River Journey building on May 1, 1992, was only possible thanks to a bedrock of private support and a communitywide commitment to returning to our river.
The initial $45 million investment in bringing an Aquarium to Chattanooga has paid dividends on a massive scale. According to a recent economic impact study conducted by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development, more than $3.293 billion has flowed into Hamilton County in the last 25 years thanks to the Aquarium. That figure represents spending by guests who reported their primary reason for coming to Chattanooga was to visit the Aquarium.
“The economic power of the Aquarium is undeniable and the entire Chattanooga community has benefitted tremendously from its presence on the waterfront,” said John Phillips, one of the Aquarium’s founding board members. “For 25 years, the Aquarium has inspired a love of nature in millions of people.”
In the beginning, many visitors came for the day, but as the destination has grown, the largest percentage of visitors now spend two or more nights. Research shows the average family visiting the Aquarium today spends $717 on their multi-day trip to Chattanooga compared to day-trip spending of $169.
Since the Aquarium’s arrival on the waterfront, more than $5 billion in private funds have been invested in the downtown area including the addition of 11 hotels.
The Aquarium’s presence supports 1,297 jobs throughout Hamilton County, and tax revenue generated by visitors to the Aquarium has tremendously boosted the local economy. According to the impact study, between 1992 and 2016, Aquarium guests paid more than $189 million in state and local taxes, which helped pay for essential civic services, from public schools and road construction to police and fire service.
A private, non-profit organization since its inception, the Aquarium has achieved remarkable success without drawing on city or county tax dollars. The Aquarium consistently has received top ratings in customer satisfaction on TripAdvisor, where it is ranked as the No. 1 attraction for visitors to Chattanooga and in the Top 5 for aquariums worldwide.
A broad base of contributors have helped the Aquarium to remain vibrant and innovative through the introduction new exhibits, investment in conservation programs and major additions such as the Ocean Journey building and the IMAX 3D Theater.
By visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, more than 23 million people — including 2.5 million school children — have been introduced to the wonders of the aquatic world and been empowered to make informed decisions about water and wildlife.
Before opening, attendance was projected to reach a first-year high of 650,000 visitors. “That we’ve managed to consistently exceeded that initial expectation by such a wide margin for so many years is remarkable,” said Keith Sanford, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. In 2016 alone, more than 745,000 guests came to Chattanooga to marvel at feisty otters, giant catfish, playful penguins, mesmerizing jellyfish and more.
“That popularity reflects our long-standing commitment to offering a memorable, compelling experience that continues to improve,” Mr. Sandford said.
The Aquarium continues to give back to the local community as well by providing more than $2.2 million each year in free student admissions, educational programs and transportation costs. Through its Community Outreach Program and partnership with the Chattanooga 2.0 movement, the Aquarium is taking an active role in promoting early childhood education and improving access to economically disadvantaged families in the region.
“There will always be a need for the Aquarium to focus on the environmental, economic and educational well-being of our community,” said Mr. Sanford. “Gifts today, or planned future gifts, will help ensure generations to come will enjoy the Aquarium, and a vibrant Chattanooga, as much as we do today.”
The Aquarium’s Impact at a Glance
· $3.293 billion in non-local visitor spending
· $189.6 million paid in state in local taxes by non-Hamilton County Aquarium guests
· 23 million visitors
· 2.5 million student visits on organized field trips
· $115 million impact on Chattanooga and Hamilton County economies
· $72.2 million earned by area businesses through goods and services purchased by Aquarium guests
· 1,297 jobs supported by Aquarium operations and capital expenditures as well as spending by out-of-town guests
· $717 spent by families, on average, per overnight stay resulting from an Aquarium visit