Victor Moffitt’s rose-colored aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest since it opened five years ago in Atlanta, has been a cornerstone of Republican Victor Moffitt’s campaign for the G.O.P. gubernatorial nomination.

Moffitt says he wants to spend $500 million to build an even bigger aquarium here in Rhode Island, and this month he established a nonprofit – the Oceans Aquarium Research and Science Center – to oversee the project.

Moffitt’s offbeat proposal has drawn criticism from John Robitaille, his opponent in the Sept. 14 Republican primary, as well as head-scratches from a number of political observers. In an interview with the Projo yesterday, Moffitt pushed back at his critics and outlined some of the positive impacts the Georgia Aquarium has had:

In its four years in operation, Moffitt says, the aquarium has brought in 12 million visitors, pumped $4 billion into the local economy and spun off 50 new businesses. Moffitt foresees a larger aquarium on Aquidneck Island or, perhaps, in East Providence.

Although the 12 million figure is on the aquarium’s website, Moffitt’s estimate of its four-year economic impact – $4 billion – seemed a bit high. And sure enough, it is.

A study commissioned by the Georgia Aquarium’s supporters (cited by CNN in 2005) forecast its annual economic impact at $172 million. The number rises to $200 million if you combine the aquarium with the next-door World of Coca-Cola, a museum about the soda company that opened in 2007.

At $200 million a year, it would take 20 years – two decades – before the aquarium and the Coke museum pumped $4 billion into the Georgia economy – roughly five times longer than Moffitt says.

Other sources supply similar numbers. In 2007, the head of Georgia State University’s hospitality school said the two attractions’ combined economic impact would be “in excess of $1 billion” – not $4 billion – over five years (pdf). And that was before the recession.

I did find a February 2008 story in Atlanta magazine which reported that the city’s “core is staging another comeback, with more than 75 major projects, representing $4 billion, under way or just completed.” But that refers to the total number of construction projects in the city at that time, not just ones spurred by the aquarium.

I asked Moffitt’s campaign where he was getting the $4 billion figure, and they faxed me a fact sheet from the aquarium, on which they circled two pieces of information.

The first was an estimate by Tom Bell, former chairman of the Atlanta-based real estate investment trust Cousins Properties, who said there has been $3 billion “in construction development in the immediate vicinity of the aquarium since 2005.” The second was the Georgia State study I mentioned before, which estimate the aquarium boosted the Georgia economy by $1 billion in its first five years. It appears Moffitt combined Bell’s $3 billion with Georgia State’s $1 billion to get the $4 billion figure.

Now, I don’t doubt that the Georgia Aquarium has been a key part of the revitalization of Atlanta’s downtown in recent years. But it seems a bit much to give the aquarium credit for all the development around it. In fact, Atlanta magazine – which would know better than Moffitt or me – said Centennial Olympic Park, not the aquarium, has been “the cornerstone of downtown’s rise.”

Importantly, the aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum are just two of the prominent landmarks around the 21-acre park, which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Their neighbors include CNN’s headquarters; the Georgia Dome, where the NFL’s Falcons play; Philips Arena, home of both the NBA’s Hawks and the NHL’s Thrashers; and a convention center.

Long story short, if Moffitt wants his aquarium to have the same impact as Atlanta’s, he’d better plan to locate it in a major regional capital city and surround it with three professional sports teams, a top global news organization and a huge public park. I’m not sure if Aquidneck Island or East Providence fit the bill.

Update: Jef Nickerson suggests Moffitt use The Dynamo House for the aquarium.

2 thoughts on “Victor Moffitt’s rose-colored aquarium

  1. Ted,

    Good article. We will look at Providence as a potential site. You did fail to memtion the other components of our proposed project like Robitaille often leaves out. Our Oceans Aquarium Research & Science Center. We are combining a research & science center into our project. We will also research wave technology and other alternatives energy projects. We also propose builing a desalization facility. All of these together create new jobs and increased tourisn for the Ocean State. The Aquarium will be the center piece of a grander project. My vision, at least I have a vision my opponents have fluff!

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