National Aquarium

People gather around the window to the dolphin tank at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun photo / August 5, 2011)

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans opened in 1990 to record crowds, boasting 2.4 million in attendance just that first year.

"We were definitely more than influenced, we were inspired by the success of Baltimore," says Kurtz, who is now the Audubon's chief of staff. "We used as much of it as would fit in our model."

In Chattanooga during the 1980s, abandoned buildings spoiled the view of the Tennessee River, creating a depressed, derelict district that, despite its perch on the edge of downtown, people avoided, especially at night.

"Baltimore had just demonstrated that by investing in a forgotten or neglected downtown area with a connection to water it could revitalize the whole downtown," says Jackson Andrews, director of husbandry and operations for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which opened in that area in 1992.

Chattanooga borrowed heavily from Baltimore's concept — hiring the same architect, building a strikingly similar glass pyramid on top and bringing on board key National Aquarium staff, including Andrews, an aquarist then, and his boss, Bill Flynn.

Long Beach civic leaders like Doug Otto, who in the 1990s chaired a long-range planning committee for the city's neglected waterfront, also wanted the Baltimore success story. The city had what he calls, "just a beach." He wanted a beach, but with entertainment, shops, restaurants and hotels — a spot for people to visit, linger and spend money.

The city had just lost its naval shipyard. Plans for a Disney theme park had fallen through. So when the Aquarium of the Pacific opened in 1998, Otto and others on his team prayed it would infuse their tired Rainbow Harbor with Inner Harbor-esque vitality.

Though the aquarium has been a hit, drawing more than 1 million people a year, the prosperity has yet to spread along the harbor. The shopping and retail components of Otto's plan struggle still.

"I think lots of development has subsequently happened based on the model Baltimore pushed forward," Otto says. But in Long Beach, "the project had not been as successful as hoped for."

Racanelli, who worked as Monterey Bay Aquarium's marketing director and as CEO of The Florida Aquarium at Tampa Bay, agrees that Baltimore's offspring didn't always live up to expectations.

In Tampa, he says, it took years after the aquarium was built before any true development spark lit on the bay. "It was shocking how long some of it took," he says. "The aquarium was lonely out there on the edge of this water point. Nothing around it, just open space."

In Monterey Bay, its science-minded aquarium certainly helped re-imagine Cannery Row, which John Steinbeck, in his book of that name, famously wrote: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise. …" But while Baltimore embraced its deluxe fish tank with pride, Californians never really did. "The community," Racanelli says, "didn't recognize the treasure."

Now, as he leads the National Aquarium to its next milestone, Racanelli hopes people will be looking to the institution as another type of model: for conservation.

The aquarium will always be an attraction, he hopes, remaining a tourism magnet and economic draw for Baltimore. But behind the scenes, the organization will be working on projects to clean the Chesapeake Bay, restore wetlands and protect endangered species. He hopes other cities and other aquariums will imitate that, too.

"The world we live in today is a very different world from the one when the aquarium opened 30 years ago. The ocean had gone from infinite resource to something we know is finite," he says. "We're trying to help people gain the appreciation for that. Ultimately, that's why we're here."

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