If it wasn’t for the Georgia Aquarium, a handful of downtown Atlanta attractions may never have dropped anchor where they are today. And the area wouldn’t have attracted $1.7 billion in new investments since the aquarium opened in 2005 and $417 million in projects under construction or being developed around Centennial Olympic Park, according to William Pate, president and CEO of Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Within three blocks of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest aquarium, which began a $100 million expansion earlier this month, are several of Atlanta’s largest entertainment destinations bordering the Olympic park.
Those that emerged since the aquarium opened are the World of Coca-Cola at Pemberton Place – relocating to its current spot in 2007; Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame; Center for Civil and Human Rights; and SkyView Atlanta ferris wheel.
The aquarium reports receiving more visitors each year than any other attraction in the Centennial Park District, the largest collection of tourist sites in the state. The aquatic attraction records 2.4 million visitors last year, 67 percent of whom were not from metro Atlanta. Of those, 60 percent were from out-of-state and 4 percent were international visitors.
The 1.4 million visitors not from Georgia are believed to have spent $52 million at the aquarium last year.
“Bernie Marcus didn’t just create the world’s largest aquarium,” Pate said. (It was the largest when built, with the largest self-contained tank today.) “The aquarium was a catalyst for growth. It spurred so many other things downtown.”
The aquarium is “in and of itself a very important attraction and an anchor for downtown Atlanta,” Pate said. Several tourist attractions didn’t exist 15 years ago, but came to the area specifically to be close to the aquarium, he said.
In the nine years following the 1996 Olympics until the aquarium arrived, there wasn’t a lot of development around the park. It was a collection of parking lots, Pate said. The aquarium moved construction along and attracted investment in hotels, restaurants and residences, he said.
“Without question, it would not have happened without the aquarium. The aquarium really jump-started tourism in Atlanta.”
While tourist sites existed in downtown before 2005, there is a much stronger concentration of world-class, family-friendly attractions now, Pate said.
Marcus confirms the growth that has taken place since the aquarium set sail in 2005. “When we originally announced that we were planning on building the aquarium, the west side of the city was dilapidated, to say the least. People did not visit that area, as it was unsafe, dark and dingy and there was no economic growth whatsoever.
“When we announced the building of the aquarium at the state capitol, it was predicted that this would be the impetus for economic growth in that area and that major investments in real estate, restaurants and other entertainment facilities would shortly follow.”
For the first time, Atlanta and the state of Georgia could claim a strong tourist attraction, Marcus said. “We knew people that came in for conventions usually came in on Mondays, with no family, and left by Friday. They wanted to spend family time back at home. Now these convention attendees bring their families because there are things to do downtown, and Atlanta and Georgia have received economic benefit from the extended stays,” he continued.
“Restaurants, hotels and other attractions have all seen growth and one only has to walk through this area to see the billions in investments being made. The aquarium was the impetus for this growth and will remain the lightning rod for development on the west side, Atlanta and Georgia for years to come.”
The Real Thing
Not to be overlooked, The Coca-Cola Company played a major role in the aquarium’s location. The iconic soda company had amassed 22 acres in downtown near Olympic Park and announced plans to develop the land “to help spur ongoing revitalization of downtown Atlanta,” according to the World of Coca-Cola website.
In 2002, the company contributed a portion of the land to The Marcus Foundation for development of the aquarium. The company then committed to design and build a new World of Coca-Cola next to the aquarium.
Originally at Underground Atlanta, the attraction had outgrown its previous space, said Jacquie Wansley, spokesperson of Coca-Cola global licensing and retail group and former general manager of the original World of Coca-Cola. The original location was expected to attract 250,000 guests a year, but before it moved in 2007, it was attracting more than 700,000 visitors a year, Wansley said.
Linking the aquarium with the new World of Coca-Cola was seen as the “highest and best use” of the property at Pemberton Place, named for Coca-Cola inventor, John Pemberton, Wansley said. The World of Coca-Cola now draws close to 1.2 million visitors a year in a downtown area that is considered a “central attraction district and entertainment hub,” Wansley said.
She pointed to the many entertainment options within a walkable downtown area. On one end of the park, there’s the World of Coca-Cola, the aquarium and civil rights museum, and on the other end, CNN Studio Tours, the College Football Hall of Fame and not far from there, the big sporting facilities, State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
They all have easy access from downtown hotels, MARTA and the interstate, she said.
With all the attractions, is there competition for tourist dollars? Not according to Wansley. A CityPASS bundles several attractions, encouraging tourists to visit more than one site and offering a discount for those who do.
Several businesses have created packages that incorporate the aquarium into their marketing. Take the Omni Atlanta Hotel at CNN Center. It’s VIP Underwater Exploration Package includes a behind-the-scene tour of the aquarium and an aquarium keepsake, among other benefits.
“What’s good for one is good for all of us,” Wansley said of the aquarium and expansion. “It’s always exciting to have new things to talk about. It’s exciting to see how it plays out.”
The aquarium’s Expansion 2020 project – one of its largest – will add a 1 million-gallon shark tank containing eight types of sharks, several of which visitors can’t see in captivity anywhere else. They include hammerheads, sand tiger sharks and sandbar sharks. There will also be opportunities to interact with the predators.
Joe Handy, Aquarium president and COO, said the expansion is a “chance to bring charismatic apex predator sharks to Atlanta … and provide a chance for millions of guests to learn about sharks and their importance to the ocean.”
These are the “kinds of things tourists look for when they go to an attraction,” Pate said. The fact that the aquarium continues to refresh its exhibits is also beneficial for tourism, he said.
Visitors are more likely to return to an attraction if there are new exhibits, Pate said. They will carve out time before or after conventions or sporting events to visit the aquarium and other sites nearby.
As part of the expansion, the aquarium’s focus on customers and visitors, including a redesigned entrance, digital signage and enhanced ticketing services, “helps us attract more people to downtown,” Pate said.
“Visitors are looking for experiences where they can go and take pictures and videos and share with their friends, and the aquarium is so suited for that.”
Assessing the past and looking to the future is Mike Leven, the aquarium’s chairman and CEO. “Georgia Aquarium has been an important part of the downtown Atlanta area since we opened in 2005 and has been a catalyst for ongoing development in the Centennial Olympic Park neighborhood … Georgia Aquarium will continue to be an engine for that (investment) with our Expansion 2020 project and our neighboring attractions and businesses.”