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Some scoffed. Some sneered. Who'd pay, the skeptics asked, to see an oversized fish tank on the Inner Harbor?

Build it, the believers retorted, and visitors would flock to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The believers, led by then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, prevailed, and even their expectations have been surpassed: This morning, the 20 millionth visitor is expected to ascend the steep escalator, step through the glass doors to the aquarium and gaze at the creatures of the deep.

The unsuspecting visitor, expected around 10:30, will be welcomed with a trumpet salute, showered with confetti, and bestowed with gifts -- a free night in a hotel, dinner for two, a dinner cruise, Orioles tickets, concert subscriptions, a big stuffed shark, a one-year membership in the National Aquarium.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the aquarium's executive director, David M. Pittenger, are to greet the visitor. The Oriole Bird will be on hand, as will Puffin, the aquarium mascot. A ragtime band will play. A fireboat will blast torrents of water into the harbor.

All to celebrate visitor No. 20 million. That's more than four times the population of Maryland. Or enough people to form a line stretching to the West Coast and back again.

Mr. Pittenger, who has worked at the aquarium since its 1981 opening, recalled the days before the first visitor. "We were all nervously clutching our consultant's report, hoping somebody would come to the aquarium," he said.

Hopeful projections suggested 600,000 people a year. Today, the aquarium averages 1.5 million annual visitors.

They come to see sharks and endangered turtles, a rain forest and sea cliffs, a coral reef and tropical birds. It's fascinating, fun and educational.

It's also big business.

The aquarium boasts more admission-paying visitors than any single attraction in Maryland. The fixture just east of Harborplace, owned by the city and operated by a private, nonprofit corporation, takes in $20 million a year and has a payroll of 300 people.

Tourists come from every state -- 70 percent of them from outside Maryland -- and dozens of foreign countries. They keep the registers ringing at nearby hotels and restaurants, providing a considerable boon to the local economy, to the tune of some $130 million a year, state officials estimate.

Michael Conte, director of the Regional Economic Studies program at the University of Baltimore, says the aquarium played a crucial role in Baltimore's renaissance, as a centerpiece in the city's $1 billion-a-year tourist industry, second only to health care.

Based on state studies, he estimates that 850 people a day come to the city from beyond its borders primarily to visit the aquarium.

"These are people visiting Baltimore who otherwise would not. That is one of the most vital functions the aquarium plays," Mr. Conte said. "The main thing is bringing that many people downtown -- 850 people who would not otherwise be there -- is an urban bonanza. It creates a vitality."

After voters approved the "mayor's fish tank" by 18,000 votes, the city built the aquarium at a cost of $21.3 million. It has since undergone expansions and other work costing more than $30 million.

The city, state and private contributions have all helped foot the bill.

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