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Stacey Vanek-Smith: The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta isn’t even two years old, but this summer, officials are breaking ground on a $110 million expansion. As Odette Yousef reports, it’s all about economics.
Odette Yousef: Atlanta is right near the top of any list for business conventions. But as a tourist destination, not so much. Some hope the aquarium will change that, and bring business travelers back for fun.
Augusta, Georgia resident Patty Cook may be evidence that it’s working. On this peak Friday afternoon in the aquarium’s food court, she settles into a table with her two granddaughters.
Patty Cook: Well, we’re on the way to my mother’s, who lives in Columbus, so this was like a stop halfway to her house.
This is Cook’s second visit to the Georgia Aquarium. She first came last year on a business trip. The man who built the aquarium believes others will also come back:
Bernie Marcus: Georgia has never, ever been a tourist place.
Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, which is based in Atlanta, opened the Aquarium in 2005.
Marcus: People would come here for conventions, and men would come by themselves, or the spouse would come by themselves, and they get out of her — by the weekend, they’d be out of her. Today, they’re bringing their families and they’re staying an extra day or two. And this adds to the economic impact.
But sustaining that economic impact is hard. Aquariums typically struggle to maintain the high ticket sales they see during their first year.
Marcus hopes the pricey new dolphin wing, where you’ll be able to swim with the marine mammals, will help the aquarium avoid that fate:
Marcus: If you just stand with what you had, you cannot be successful — people just don’t want to come back and see the same thing over. There are some that do, but most of them won’t.
So is Marcus ready to invest $110 million every few years, just to keep things fresh? He doesn’t think it’ll always take that much to bring people back.
Georgia State University Professor Bruce Seaman says the aquarium’s pressure to innovate is getting lighter because other new attractions are opening nearby:
Bruce Seaman: And there’s no doubt that having something like the Georgia Aquarium, the new Coke museum, the Children’s Museum — this is helping, slowly but surely, to justify extending that stay an extra half day or an extra night.
It’s also transforming downtown Atlanta. The Coca-Cola Company poured $96 million into a revamped museum that opened last year next to the aquarium. And Georgia recently announced a new National Health Museum to be built nearby.
In Atlanta, I’m Odette Yousef for Marketplace.
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