Originally created 01/22/06

Georgia Aquarium beats visitors projections



ATLANTA - The Georgia Aquarium has received nearly 600,000 visitors in the little over eight weeks it has been open, far outpacing what organizers had expected, the attraction's benefactor, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, said Friday.

Marcus, who bankrolled the project with $200 million of his own money, said in an interview after a speech at the Commerce Club that the aquarium's budget was based on 1.8 million visitors a year.

Based on the total since it opened Nov. 23, it's on pace for more than 3.5 million visitors in its first year.

Marcus declined to provided revenue figures or say if the world's largest aquarium, with 125,000 fish to take care of, is turning a profit. He said his goal is for the aquarium to break even with just enough money left over to pump back into the facility to pay for new attractions.

"The key for us right now is to bring people to the aquarium and let people see it," Marcus said.

The aquarium has sold 280,000 annual passes. Marcus said the ballroom is booked for events every night.

During the speech, Marcus said the same word of mouth that helped build The Home Depot Inc. into the nation's largest home improvement store chain is helping the Georgia Aquarium be a hit with the public. Marcus and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank are no longer officers of the company.

"It's great to have a place to come, but if you don't have a product to sell you're in deep trouble. And we have a product," Marcus said of his new passion, the aquarium.

Marcus said the 500,000-square foot aquarium has helped revitalize downtown, but he believes more can be done. He said he'd like to see more commercial enterprise sprout up downtown.

Next door to Centennial Olympic Park and across the street from CNN Center and the Georgia Dome, the aquarium will be joined in 2007 by a new World of Coca-Cola museum next door. The city also is a finalist for NASCAR's hall of fame that would be located in what is now a parking lot near the other attractions.

"I hope they come," Marcus said Friday of NASCAR. "If it's not going to be them, it will be somebody else."

Asked what his encore will be, Marcus said he hasn't thought about another project.

"I'm out of money," joked Marcus. As of 2002, he owned 59 million shares of Home Depot, which Friday would be worth $2.4 billion. His current stock ownership is not made public by the Atlanta-based company.

On the Net:

Georgia Aquarium: http://www.georgiaaquarium.org