In the Scenic City, few partnerships have been as longstanding, fruitful, or deserving of celebration as that between the Tennessee Aquarium and the Chattanooga community.
With its opening on May 1, 1992, the Aquarium was the epicenter of a civic turnaround that transformed Chattanooga from a struggling, polluted manufacturing town into a bustling, tech-friendly hub of Southeastern tourism and outdoor recreation.
The Aquarium will host an all-day riverfront celebration on April 30, the day before its official 30th anniversary, in honor of the importance of public partnerships to its creation and continuing success.
“The Aquarium would not exist today without the vision and support of our community,” says Aquarium President and CEO Keith Sanford. “Thanks to this city’s belief in itself and willingness to dream big, the Aquarium has attracted millions of people to Chattanooga who can now appreciate how special our home really is.”
The Aquarium’s 30th Anniversary Community Celebration will take place 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the Aquarium plaza and on the Chattanooga Green across Chestnut Street from the River Journey building.
A partnership with the Walk Run Pedal Jamz Festival, the celebration will commence with a 30-minute walk, followed by a 30-minute run and then a 30-kilometer bike ride along the riverfront.
At 10 a.m., the Chattanooga River Market will open. In addition to perusing stalls stocked with locally produced products and treats, attendees can participate in family activities and snack on offerings from various food trucks.
A packed slate of musical performances will kick off at 11 a.m., including acts such as soul artist and The Voice winner Chris Blue, Nashville-based pop singer Jonny Lucas and Chattanooga’s own Willie Kitchens, the former lead vocalist of The Impressions. The evening will conclude with a fireworks display at 9 p.m.
This anniversary event is a fitting, 30-year echo of the public’s optimistic, hopeful reception of the Aquarium on May 1, 1992.
That morning, under blue skies and to the lively, thumping refrain of a marching band, lines of children dressed as bass, bluegill, and other aquatic animals wiggled and giggled down Broad Street toward the Aquarium’s then-novel, now-iconic glass peaks.
The event was a cheerful celebration by a city engaged in a bold — almost audacious — effort to reinvent itself and breathe new life into a stagnant downtown by reconnecting with its greatest natural asset: the Tennessee River.
“It is fantastic. It’s beautiful,” Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter told crowds gathered on the plaza in front of the Aquarium for the opening dedication. “[The Aquarium] will be the centerpiece that Chattanooga is known by throughout this state, this country, and the world.”
“The Aquarium will establish us as men and women who celebrate clean water and clean air as the lifeblood which sustains us,” Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts proclaimed. “For decades to come, the people of this place will look back to this day and mark it as a magical moment. This is just the beginning of Chattanooga’s renaissance, but oh, what a mighty beginning it is.”
To say the city’s initial $45-million gamble on the Aquarium paid off is a tremendous understatement, based on findings in a recently completed economic impact report.
On the eve of its 30th anniversary, the study shows how the initial investment in the Aquarium — all of it privately funded — created an institution that remains one of Chattanooga’s most iconic symbols and strongest economic drivers. This analysis was prepared by Dr. Rachel Fu, Director of the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute and Professor and Chair of Tourism, Hospitality and Event Management at the University of Florida. In 2017, Dr. Fu prepared an impact study of the Aquarium using the same methodology while serving as director of the Center for Sustainable Business and Development at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
According to the study, the more than 26 million visitors to the Aquarium since 1992 have driven $4.88 billion in direct, indirect, and induced spending to Hamilton County. During the same period, out-of-town visitors have paid more than $300 million in state and local taxes, which supported essential services like schools, police, and fire departments.
Even in the midst of the confused snarl of changes and restrictions brought on by the arrival of Covid-19 in 2020, the Aquarium’s economic impact on the community barely wavered.
In 2021, the Aquarium maintained — as it does today — daily attendance caps instituted when it reopened in the early months of the pandemic. Even with this reduced capacity, more than 668,000 visitors to the Aquarium last year spent $135.7 million at Chattanooga businesses.
The Aquarium and Chattanooga owe much of their success to each other. Since its inception, the Aquarium has been fueled by continuous public support and public-private investment. Per the recent economic study, the economic return on Chattanooga’s investment in the Aquarium has been substantial. However, the Aquarium wouldn’t exist without the community’s vision, civic pride, and visitation.
“The Aquarium and our community have lifted each other up,” Sanford says. “We’re excited by all we’ve accomplished together in the last 30 years. I look forward to an even brighter future and greater successes in the years to come.”
The 30th Anniversary Community Celebration is presented by the Chattanooga Tourism Company, River City Company, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Walk, Run, Pedal, Jamz Festival. For more event details, visit tnaqua.org/events/30th-anniversary-community-celebration/
To read the Tennessee Aquarium’s economic impact study, visit: https://tnaqua.org/about-us/community-impact/