Chattanooga is latest city to open an aquarium


CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- In search of a Baltimore-style rejuvenation, this conservation-oriented city on the Tennessee River has joined the growing ranks of American cities that have opened aquariums.

A mile-long parade of 700 children dressed as schools of fish launched a three-day "Festival of Rivers" that Chattanooga is throwing this weekend to celebrate the opening of the $45 million Tennessee Aquarium, which Mayor Gene Roberts calls "our very own, home-grown cathedral of conservation."

"The aquarium will establish us as men and women who celebrate clean water and clean air as the lifeblood which sustains us all," he said in opening ceremonies Friday. "This is just the beginning of Chattanooga's downtown riverfront renaissance."

"It will be the centerpiece by which Chattanooga is known throughout the state, the country, and the world," said Tennessee Gov. Ned R. McWherter. "It's a symbol of a community that believes in itself and its future."

The new aquarium has more than a few similarities to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, starting with the glass pyramids at its top. It was designed by the same architect, Peter Chermayeff of Cambridge Seven Associates. On its staff are some of the same people who put together Baltimore's aquarium, including President William S. Flynn and Jackson Andrews, director of operations and husbandry.

Sandra Hillman, a marketing executive with Trahan, Burden & Charles and former city promotions director, has been a consultant to community leaders in Chattanooga, a city of 152,000.

A $10 million park and plaza surrounding the aquarium was designed largely by New York architect James Wines, who spent his high school years in Baltimore.

Planners made it clear from the beginning that they want the project to be as successful in rejuvenating Chattanooga's waterfront as the National Aquarium has been for Baltimore. Theirs is one of four aquariums opening in the United States this year, along with others in Camden, N.J.; Newport, Ore.; and La Jolla, Calif.

Just as Baltimore is seeking to promote itself as a center for the life sciences, Chattanooga is working to attract environment-conscious businesses and organizations and sees the aquarium as a strong symbol of that effort. In a time capsule buried near the aquarium on opening day, officials placed a vial of water from the Tennessee River, complete with an analysis of its water quality -- a sign of the city's environmental consciousness.

But unlike Baltimore's 11-year-old aquarium, Tennessee's was built entirely with private funds. Expected to draw 650,000 visitors a year, it is the first aquarium in the nation to devote its exhibits almost exclusively to freshwater habitats rather than the open-ocean environments that help make Baltimore's facility so popular.

Because of the emphasis on fresh water, the facility has none of the dolphin or beluga whale exhibits that animal rights activists have protested.

Instead, it tells the story of the Tennessee River, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi Delta, with creatures ranging from river otters and alligators to blue catfish and snail darters.

It is part of a $750 million program of improvements that also will include a children's museum, visitors' center, Coca-Cola bottling museum and waterfront housing. The surrounding 2.4-acre park was designed to be the city's "front porch" and public overlook to the river. One major drawback is that the park is separated from the water by a four-lane highway, which planners have been working to remove.

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