ROAD TO REVIVAL
The aquarium became the linchpin for Chattanooga's riverfront revival
• 1992 -- Tennessee Aquarium and Ross's Landing Park & Plaza open; Nightfall concert series begins downtown during summer months.
• 1993 -- Riverset Apartments open, first downtown housing development in more than 20 years.
• 1993 -- The River City Co. buys the Trolley Barns, which are redeveloped into restaurants, including Big River Grille, the first brew pub in Chattanooga.
• 1995 -- Redevelopment of the 16-acre Kirkman school site begins, becomes Chattanooga Lookouts home.
• 1996 -- IMAX 3D Theater opens.
• 1997 -- Bijou Theater opens with CARTA parking garage.
• 1999 -- Coolidge Park opens on the North Shore.
• 2001 -- Brown and Battle academies open as the first downtown public elementary schools in decades.
• 2002 -- Chattanooga Market debuts.
• 2005 -- 21st Century Waterfront opens, redeveloping 130 acres of downtown and riverfront land.
• 2006 -- Renaissance Park opens.
• 2009 -- Majestic 12 Theater opens.
Chattanooga added more hotels and other lodging properties in the last 20 years on a percentage basis than any major city statewide except Memphis. Some regional cities are included below along with percent change:
• Savannah, Ga., up 106 percent
• Mobile, Ala., up 94 percent
• Memphis, up 89 percent
• Chattanooga, up 62.7 percent
• Nashville, up 59.6 percent
• Augusta, Ga., up 48.1 percent
• Knoxville, up 28 percent
Source: Smith Travel Research
Hotel-motel tax collections have jumped in Hamilton County over the past 20 years:*
• 1991 -- $1.87 million
• 1995 -- $2.6 million
• 1999 -- $3.2 million
• 2011 -- $10.2 million
• Chattanooga levy raised last decade
BY THE NUMBERS
• $350 million: Cost of new housing added downtown over last 20 years.
• $173 million: Cost of public spaces built in the area.
• $164 million: Cost of tourism-related additions to the area.
Source: The River City Co.
Looking over Chattanooga's revived riverfront at the Hunter Museum of American Art four years ago, Volkswagen officials talked of how "the intangibles" helped them pick the city for a new $1 billion assembly plant.
About 20 years earlier, just two blocks down a street now known as Aquarium Way, workers started moving dirt on what some believe was ground zero in the city's rebirth, its return to the river and the creation of the intangibles cited by VW.
This weekend, Chattanooga marks two decades since the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium -- a building that spawned waves of new development and changed the way many residents and outsiders view the city.
"Where would we be without it?" asked Bill Sudderth, Chattanooga Land Co. president and a longtime downtown leader. "It's almost unimaginable."
Since the aquarium's May 1, 1992, opening, about $2 billion in new investment has been pumped into Chattanooga's downtown, according to the nonprofit redevelopment group River City Co.
Over a dozen new hotels, scores of restaurants, more downtown housing, movie theaters and added office space have all risen in the central city over the years.
Also, a city that had been beaten down by a loss of manufacturing coupled with negative population growth in the 1980s began to believe in itself again with the aquarium's emergence, said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.
"It gave people hope," he said.
In addition, Chattanooga economic development officials today use the aquarium and the renewed downtown when they recruit companies such as VW, whose manufacturing investment was the city's biggest ever.
"One of our big pitches has to do about quality of life," said Tom Edd Wilson, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's chief executive. "A major part of that is what's taken place on the river."
Littlefield recalled that planners originally predicted a $750 million impact for the aquarium.
"We blew by that a long time ago," he said.
Thirteen new hotels costing more than $150 million have opened downtown in the two decades, adding hundreds of rooms to the central city. Citywide, only Memphis has added more lodging sites on a percentage basis over 20 years in the state, according to Smith Travel Research.
Combined with increasing tourism, the additional lodging led Hamilton County room tax collections to rise from $1.87 million in 1991 to $10.2 million in 2011, though an increase in the levy aided some of the increase. Without the higher levy and excluding Chattanooga and East Ridge, county room tax collections still rose 189 percent, according to officials.
Travel revenue in Hamilton County has grown from more than $500 million in 2002 to more than $800 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Bob Doak, who heads the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said downtown has seen a lot of growth in hotels and restaurants, which has added to the central city's appeal.
"I lived downtown in the early 1980s," he said. "There wasn't a lot to do at all."
For example, at the Tennessee Aquarium's grand opening, thousands of Chattanoogans returned to the city's riverfront birthplace to celebrate what quickly became its biggest tourist attraction.
But for all the eventual downtown revival sparked by the aquarium, marketing director Cindy Todd said that when the attraction first opened, food had to be catered and entertainers hired because there were so few restaurants or stores nearby.
Today, however, restaurant options near the aquarium abound, from fast food to upscale dining.
On Saturday while the aquarium celebrated its 20th anniversary, the Chattanooga Lookouts played at the nearby AT&T Field and a high school prom filled the Imax Theater while CARTA's electric-powered buses shuttled commuters around the downtown attractions.
Erik Neil, owner of Easy Bistro & Bar on Broad Street, said none of the restaurants in the riverfront area would be there without the aquarium.
"It's the anchor for what happens down here," he said.
According to River City, more than $53 million has been spent on new retail over the past two decades, though officials see a need for still more in the central city.
Aquarium backers say the attraction also revived the city's confidence.
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite had named Chattanooga's air the dirtiest in America in 1969, the city's manufacturing foundation was uprooted in the 1980s, and the city was losing population. The city's census count dropped by more than 10 percent from 1980 to 1990.
To reverse the situation, different groups came to the similar conclusion that redevelopment efforts should begin on the banks of the Tennessee River, according to a history of the aquarium by Connie Patterson.
The Moccasin Bend Task Force, a citizens group, in the early '80s began studying a 20-mile corridor from Chickamauga Dam to the Marion County line.
The group came up with the idea of the Tennessee Riverpark, a series of connecting walkways encompassing museums, fishing piers, retail shops, a hotel and apartment complexes, the history said. The key Ross's Landing site downtown would hold a visitors center, a museum and an aquarium.
Another group, Chattanooga Venture, also began its Vision 2000 goal-setting process about that time based on citizen input, according to the history. It helped move the idea forward of Chattanooga returning to the river.
However, not everyone was for the idea of an aquarium. Some derided it as "a fish tank" and complained about the spending of public money on the attraction.
John T. "Jack" Lupton, the Lookout Mountain philanthropist who once headed Coca-Cola's biggest bottling empire, became involved and led the campaign to fund the $45 million aquarium entirely from private donations. Included in that amount was more than $20 million from Lupton's own family and the Lyndhurst Foundation started by his father.
Even after it was built, there were unbelievers. U.S. News & World Report mentioned the aquarium among "white elephant" projects nationally that might not reach their lofty goals.
"If you build it, they might not come," a headline suggested.
But, the aquarium surpassed projections, drawing more than 1 million people the first year.
"Most people kind of think it got things started," said Charlie Arant, the aquarium's chief executive. "It generated a lot of new investment."
Wilson said the aquarium turned a dream "into something you could feel, touch and explore."
"That generated ideas from other entrepreneurs and business people," he said. "You saw growth coming up around the aquarium."
But, it didn't stop there as redevelopment moved to the Southside, the North Shore and other parts of central city.
Sudderth said the perception of Chattanoogans about their city began to change after the aquarium opened. People had started not only to dream, but to carry out those dreams, he said.
"It gave people confidence we could do things in the city that we forgot we could do," Sudderth said.
Wilson said he hopes the 40-year, 16-county growth plan the Chamber is now undertaking will be talked about in similar ways 25 years from now. The city, Hamilton County government and area foundations have pledged $3 million for the effort, which is to create a kind of business plan for the region.
"That's moving to the next level," Wilson said.
Business editor Dave Flessner staff writer Carey O'Neil contributed to this story.
Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...