New Aquarium Part of Atlanta Image Upgrade

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Atlanta, Ga., opened a world class aquarium in November, as part of the city's image make-over. Officials hope to draw more residents and outside visitors to the city's downtown area.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Atlanta is doing its best to change its image. The world's largest aquarium has just opened. The Fine Arts Museum has undergone a $160 million expansion, doubling its size, and the city has a new slogan. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on why all the effort.

KATHY LOHR reporting:

The Georgia Aquarium is the newest and most dazzling of Atlanta's downtown attractions. The sheer size of the place is overwhelming, half a million square feet housing more than 100,000 fish and sea creatures. But it's also the way the exhibits are presented.

Mr. BERNIE MARCUS (Co-founder, Home Depot): Most aquariums are cement and glass. I wanted it to be light and music and I wanted to frame the fish in a different kind of a theater. And it is theater.

LOHR: That's Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and the man who gave the more than $250 million aquarium as a gift to the city. Marcus says he wanted every tank to be like a stage and it is dramatic. In the Ocean Voyager exhibit, there's a window that allows you to look up as if you are a scuba diver 30 feet under the water. Then from a darkened pathway around a corner, an enormous window on the underwater world is revealed. Jeff Swanagan is the aquarium's executive director.

Mr. JEFF SWANAGAN (Aquarium Executive Director): The largest viewing window in the United States, 63 feet across, 26 feet high, and literally thousands and thousands of schooling fish swimming.

LOHR: There are spectacular sights in other exhibits: beluga whales, a touch tank for kids where there are cownose rays, even a coral reef. But what Atlanta is hoping is that the aquarium will help remake its image. That's something cities across the country are doing.

Professor BONITA KOLB (Lycoming College): The public gets jaded very quickly. And they always wants to know what's new.

LOHR: Bonita Kolb is an assistant professor of marketing at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. She's writing a book on the marketing of cities and found that nearly every city is promoting itself.

Prof. KOLB: Why? Because other cities are updating their image. They're saying, `We're new. We're attractive. We have something different and unique.' So even the best-known cities, such as Paris and New York, are now having to think about their image and promote in ways they never had to before.

LOHR: For example, Paris is promoting weekend trips to draw people who live in London and New York is pushing its culture and history. Atlanta, which has a new slogan, is promoting more than its aquarium. At a recent meeting of the Brand Atlanta Campaign, business and community leaders say it's time for a change from what most people remember about the city from the 1960s, when it was dubbed `The City Too Busy To Hate.' The new slogan, `Every Day Is An Opening Day In Atlanta.'

Slick TV ads highlight inclusiveness and incorporate a new song the city commissioned. They also feature the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, who graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in the '70s.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON: Every day in Atlanta, eyes open wide at the world's largest aquarium. Every day the doors to world-class attractions open: plays, galleries and our new and historic entertainment venues.

LOHR: Marketing experts say it takes at least a couple of years to see whether a campaign like this one will work, but some who've seen big changes downtown--new homes and condos going up and the enormous aquarium--say Atlanta is making progress. Bernie Marcus, who donated the aquarium, says his attraction is drawing people from the suburbs and from across the country.

Mr. MARCUS: I don't think that Atlanta has ever been known as a tourist attraction, unlike cities like Las Vegas or San Diego. The truth is Atlanta has things to do but no one's ever packaged it and I think that this aquarium will do it.

LOHR: Marcus expects two and a half million visitors will come to see the aquarium in just the first year. With all those people in downtown Atlanta and the world of Coca-Cola relocating to the same site in 2007, city officials are hoping the new image will lure more tourist attractions, especially the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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