N.J. city, too, seeks acclaim with aquarium

March 01, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

The scene is jarringly familiar: a massive new aquarium overlooking the waterfront, with harbor seals frolicking outside and thousands of fish and other specimens inside. Tourists strolling along a brick promenade and public park at the water's edge. Land cleared all around for a hotel, offices, conference center, shops and restaurants.

This isn't Baltimore's Inner Harbor, circa 1981. This is 100 miles north, the refurbished waterfront of Camden, N.J.

Yesterday, before a sellout crowd, officials of Camden and New Jersey cut the ribbon opening the $52 million Thomas H. Kean New Jersey State Aquarium at Camden, foundation of a $500 million effort to rejuvenate a city struggling to end nearly 50 years of decline.

"I think that the aquarium will act as a cornerstone to the rebuilding of the waterfront area in much the same way the National Aquarium did in Baltimore," says Judith Wellington, the Camden aquarium's chief operating officer.

"We're now going to become a tourist attraction," says Camden Mayor Aaron A. Thompson, whose city was described by Time magazine recently as a "sinkhole" that seems "beyond saving."

While Camden's aquatic showplace will undoubtedly help boost revitalization efforts for that city of 90,000, it represents more than a little cause for concern in Baltimore, where the National Aquarium draws 1.4 million visitors a year.

Camden officials predict their facility will draw 1 million visitors during its first year of operation, mostly from within a 100-mile radius that includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

That could put a dent in attendance at Baltimore's aquarium, which typically draws 40 percent of its visitors -- roughly 560,000 people a year -- from those three states.

But Baltimore officials say they aren't particularly worried. They expect the National Aquarium's attendance to remain strong because of a variety of factors, ranging from a new computerized ticketing system to increased public interest in the environment.

The biggest boost, they say, is likely to come from the Baltimore Orioles' move to a new stadium at the Inner Harbor. The opening next month of Oriole Park at Camden Yards is expected to generate a tidal wave of nationwide publicity for Baltimore and all the Inner Harbor attractions.

Kathy Cloyd Sher, the National Aquarium's senior director of marketing and planning, observed, too: "Many people have already been here from the Philadelphia area, and they will probably want to see the Camden [aquarium] and compare. What tends to happen is that once people have gone to an aquarium and have a good time, a quality family experience, they are more likely to return."

"We'd like them to be successful," she added. "If it's great, that only encourages people to see what our aquarium has to offer, too."

On the Delaware River's banks opposite Philadelphia, Camden's aquarium is the first of four opening around the country this year as part of a new wave of attractions designed to draw tourists, spark spinoff development and help cities upgrade their images.

Just as natural history museums proliferated in the Victorian era and art museums multiplied in the 1930s, aquariums have become a growth industry in the 1990s, with more than 30 in various stages of planning and construction around the world.

Much of the stimulus for this activity comes from the success of facilities such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which will soon greet its 15 millionth visitor.

In Camden, civic leaders have a master plan that calls for a package of attractions similar to Baltimore's: a festival marketplace, marina, luxury hotel, conference center and a new corporate headquarters for the Campbell Soup Co., among other additions.

Camden's plan was designed by Wallace, Roberts and Todd, the same firm that created the master plan for Baltimore's Inner Harbor redevelopment, and is similar down to the look of the light posts and park benches along the promenade.

New Jersey government is paying almost entirely for the Camden aquarium. A public project had to come first, planners say, because developers have not materialized for the festival market and other private-sector projects. They are counting on the aquarium to show that people will visit Camden's waterfront in numbers sufficient to justify the other development.

In the fiscal year that ends June 30, Camden aquarium officials will spend close to $1 million to get the word out about their building through TV and radio spots, newspaper publicity and billboard displays that call it "A New Way to Sea Life."

They're even launching a ferry service that will take people directly from Penn's Landing in Philadelphia across the Delaware River to the aquarium so visitors won't have to drive through Camden itself.

Costing more than twice what Baltimore's original aquarium did, the New Jersey aquarium has a fabric dome that changes colors with the weather instead of the glass pyramids that give the Baltimore project its signature profile.

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