Originally created 07/31/05

Hope floats for attraction



ATLANTA - Less than four months before it opens to the public, the new Georgia Aquarium under construction in downtown Atlanta is already making waves.

Convention organizers are sizing up the 430,000-square-foot aquarium to see how they can incorporate it into upcoming trade shows and meetings.

Many business owners and hotel managers in the city center are betting on the aquarium to kick-start the area's economy when it opens Nov. 23, pumping in cherished tourist dollars and new jobs.

"It would definitely help, so we're all excited," said Olori Banjo, the owner of African Pride Inc., a clothing and arts store in Underground Atlanta, the former rail station that has struggled in recent years in its more recent identity as a downtown mall.

"We're looking for something to lift up the spirits of Underground," Ms. Banjo said of the aquarium's pending debut roughly a mile from her store.

At the same time, the man who is paying to build the aquarium has thrown his support behind a controversial proposal before the city council to ban panhandling in the downtown area, an issue causing a bitter debate between civil-rights advocates and the business community.

Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of The Home Depot, is donating more than $200 million of his own wealth to finance construction of the aquarium, which he calls a gift to the people of Georgia.

Mr. Marcus said recently that he thinks the success of the aquarium and Atlanta's tourism industry hinges on enacting the anti-panhandling ordinance.

DESPITE THE CONTROVERSY and anticipation swirling around the aquarium's fall opening, Mr. Marcus isn't shying away from the spotlight.

He threw open the aquarium doors to the media last week, holding the first news conference inside the imposing ship-shaped building going up on the northern side of Centennial Olympic Park.

Inside a nearly 17,000-square-foot ballroom, Mr. Marcus dropped the curtains on floor-to-ceiling windows with views into a 5-million-gallon tank filled with more than 10,000 fish, including the only two whale sharks on display outside Asia. The nearly 20-foot-long filter feeders, known as Ralph and Norton, inhaled their morning meals of tiny shrimp (17 pounds for each shark) in front of the media as hammerhead sharks and other gilled friends floated close by. Considered juveniles now, the whale sharks are expected to reach lengths of 40 feet or more when fully grown.

"I'm not sure there's any other venue in the city that has this kind of ambience," Mr. Marcus said, explaining that his project will be much more than a simple aquarium.

The main attraction will be the aquarium's 100,000 animals, along with accompanying research and conservation efforts with the marine science community.

But there's also a ballroom that can be subdivided into three rooms or hold a large-scale event, including a sit-down dinner for 1,100 guests or a buffet for 1,800.

"Hopefully, it's going to help bring conventions here that are looking for other venues," Mr. Marcus explained, adding that the facility even has a kosher kitchen.

Wedding receptions, banquets, trade shows - all will be welcome at the aquarium, where catering will be overseen by chef Wolfgang Puck, who also was on hand for the news conference.

"I really think this is the new diamond here for Atlanta," Mr. Puck said.

Mr. Puck, whose company oversees restaurants and food service operations around the country, said seafood will be on the menu in the aquarium's 250-seat food court, Cafe Aquaria, but only seafood that isn't suffering from over-fishing or mass-farming.

"I think for us it will be an interesting menu because we can also teach people about sustainable seafood," Mr. Puck said, explaining that the menu is inspired by the Monterey (Calif.) Bay Aquarium's seafood guide, which urges consumers to eat seafood without harming the environment.

SOME SHOPKEEPERS and city leaders have expressed concern that the World of Coca-Cola museum has decided to abandon its location next to Underground Atlanta and move north to a new setting next to the aquarium.

The fear some Underground business owners have is that tourists will be less likely to visit Underground without the World of Coca-Cola next door.

But vacationer Victor Sanchez, who came from Spain to visit his brother in Atlanta, said he would have come to check out Underground even without the Coca-Cola facility across the street.

Mr. Sanchez said he believes the unique history and structure of Underground makes it something worth touring, even if it's not next to the aquarium complex.

"The Underground has a kind of special feeling, I think," Mr. Sanchez said.

John and Stacy Kaiser, of Madison, Miss., agreed, saying they are excited to come back to Atlanta to see the aquarium, but would also still venture out to see the rest of the city, including Underground.

Still, Mrs. Kaiser said she and her family probably wouldn't have spent an entire day around the Underground plaza - as they did on their recent trip - if the World of Coca-Cola hadn't been next door.

"We went through Underground, and that didn't take very long," she said. "We wouldn't have had anything else to do (without the World of Coca-Cola)."

Mr. Marcus said he is optimistic Atlanta - and Georgia as a whole - will thrive when the new aquarium opens.

Although it is uncertain what effect the Georgia Aquarium will have on the attendance figures at other aquariums in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Albany in southwest Georgia, Mr. Marcus appears optimistic.

"If we can get people to stay one extra day (in Atlanta), it's going to be an experience," he said. "It's going to have a great economic impact for the city and the state."

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 681-1701 or brian.basinger@morris.com.



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