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Fishing for business, cities build aquariums

Call it the age of aquariums.

Like convention centers in the 1970s or sports domes in the 1980s, the aquarium is emerging as cities' hot new lure for tourists and businesses. More than a dozen cities _ including Tampa, Buffalo, N.Y., and Tulsa, Okla. _ have aquarium projects on the drawing board.

With their conservation message, aquariums have become the ultimate in environmentally correct family entertainment. Last year, 35.4-million people visited the country's 26 major aquariums, up from 23-million in 1989.

"Suddenly everyone is interested in fish," says Bernard Frieden, associate dean of architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yet city planners and aquarium executives suggest that the nation may soon suffer from aquarium overload, especially since some recent projects are already floundering.

In South Carolina, for instance, three aquariums are slated to go up along the coast in the next few years. Two companies in Denver are slugging it out over competing projects, and in California, the nearby cities of Ventura, Oxnard and Santa Barbara are all preparing to jump into the game.

Meanwhile, aquariums in Connecticut and New Jersey are showing signs of financial strain.

Baltimore's National Aquarium is credited with having started the boom. Since it opened in 1981, the aquarium has attracted 1.5-million visitors a year, reviving the city's crumbling waterfront.

Three years later, the Monterey Bay (Calif.) Aquarium opened in the city's old Cannery Row, drawing 2.2-million people its first year, thus sparking a mini-building boom.

The latest star is the Tennessee Aquarium, which opened in 1992 and has pulled more than 1-million people a year to the small city of Chattanooga. The aquarium shunned the usual lineup of dolphins and sharks in favor of freshwater fish from the region's rivers, setting a trend in the rest of the industry.

"People said it would never work _ a small town like ours, showing catfish and trout," says Jim Hill, the aquarium's president. "But now we've got city officials coming here all the time trying to find out how to bring a million people to their town."

At the Tennessee Aquarium, visitors can roam a southern Appalachian bog and delta swamp and catch underwater views of otters, snapping turtles, alligators and aquatic salamanders.

In the dark "canyon" exhibit, crowds walk between giant glowing tanks offering underworld views of everything from hammerhead sharks, Congo tetras, fire eels and barracudas to grunts, crappies and 60-pound catfish. All of this is a far cry from the old "stamp collection" displays, which stacked the fish along a wall in small tanks.

Some city planners worry, however, that these innovations may be too hard to pay for. The typical price tag for a state-of-the-art aquarium is about $40-million _ an increasingly tough sum to recoup. And as companies and cities race to build bigger, flashier exhibits, experts say some cities are bound to be left with headaches.

"Sure an aquarium would be great for my kids _ until they have to pay the bill," says Mike Jackson, a member of the city council of Charlotte, N.C., which is grappling over funding for a $40-million aquarium. "I'd rather the city not take the risk."

Two development companies in Myrtle Beach, S.C., have announced plans to build aquariums as part of larger entertainment/retail complexes.

Burroughs & Chapin Co. is planning a $30-million "aquatic center" at its Broadway at the Beach development, while Barefoot Landing Inc. is planning a $25-million aquarium to accompany its theaters and restaurants. Both projects are privately funded, for-profit ventures.

Hoping to douse the competition, Burroughs & Chapin says its aquarium will feature a million gallons of water, a "crashing waves" exhibit and a dark, "lifelike" alligator swamp. Asked whether the town can support two aquariums, Douglas Wendel, president and chief executive of Burroughs & Chapin, says, "It may not support two, but it will support ours."

Barefoot Landing hasn't released details of its plans, although a spokesman says the aquarium will have "lots of big fish." When asked about the competition, he adds, "We talked about ours first, so I don't know what they're thinking."

Some cities are wishing they had never built an aquarium.

Norwalk, Conn., for instance, had to take over payments on its Maritime Center in 1988 after only 384,000 visitors came through the doors the first year _ not even two-thirds of what are now described as overly optimistic projections.

The city so far has spent $18-million on the aquarium's debt and will continue to make payments through 2004. As for the "ripple effect" on development downtown: "It hasn't really materialized yet," says Jack Miller, the city's financial director.

Camden, N.J., is also having trouble. Attendance at its aquarium, which opened in 1992, has fallen to about 600,000 from 1.1-million. (Attendance usually drops 20 percent to 30 percent after the first year.)

Officials blame the local economy; industry experts point to lackluster exhibits. The aquarium recently cut its operating schedule to five days a week from seven and reduced its staff as part of an effort to close a $1-million budget gap.

Corpus Christi, Texas, is also struggling to pay a $4-million deficit stemming from pledges that were never received and weak admissions. The city's aquarium had originally expected to erase the deficit by August, but "Now we're looking at about 1996," says a spokeswoman.

Many wonder whether the huge start-up costs and expensive overhauls required every four or five years will make for-profit aquariums viable.

"It's a very capital-intensive business," says Marilee Utter, board member of Denver's not-for-profit Ocean Journey project. "From an investment point of view, I don't see it all penciling out."

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal. Copyright 1994 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All Rights Reserved