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A Pioneer of the Big Box Builds a Tank for Some Very Big Fish

Shaila Dewan

New York Times

August 7, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the New York Times, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the New York Times.]

ATLANTA, Aug. 6 - Every billionaire needs a hobby. And every city, it has come to seem, needs an aquarium.

How convenient, then, that Bernard Marcus, who opened the first Home Depot store here in 1978, has spent the past few years designing, building and obsessing over the details of a $200 million aquarium that he hopes will be the world's most impressive fish tank.

As Mr. Marcus, 76, said in a recent interview at the offices of the Marcus Foundation, "I love big fish, O.K.?"

The Georgia Aquarium, as it will be called, is scheduled to open in November. It will have five million gallons of water and more than 100,000 fish. It will have giant groupers, octopuses and two white beluga whales. The star attraction will be two whale sharks, the world's biggest fish, which can exceed 40 feet in length and, Mr. Marcus said, will be on display for the first time outside of Asia. The aquarium will even have a celebrity caterer, Wolfgang Puck.

The hopes pinned on the project are correspondingly outsized. The aquarium is, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said, the city's biggest economic opportunity since the 1996 Olympics. It is expected to revitalize downtown and to bring Atlanta the tourism business it believes it deserves. Mr. Marcus says he conservatively estimates the economic impact at $1 billion over five years.

The aquarium will be so great, it seems that fish may prefer it to the ocean. "This is like going to the Ritz-Carlton," Mr. Marcus said. "If you ask them do they want to go back to the ocean, you know what they would say: 'Are you crazy?' "

Aquariums have done so well for other cities that they have become a municipal status symbol - one that Atlanta is somewhat late to acquire. Of the 36 aquariums in the United States accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, nearly half have opened in the past 15 years, including those in Las Vegas, Dallas and Chattanooga, Tenn.

But few have had the advantage offered by Mr. Marcus: an aquarium built entirely with private money, opening with no debt. After a year, Mr. Marcus said, it will be turned over to a nonprofit organization. Presumably he will still be allowed to feed buckets of krill to the adolescent whale sharks, Ralph and Norton, who are now 13 and 16 feet long.

Few people have criticized the gift, but there have been some complaints related to Mr. Marcus's control of the project. The parking garage is architecturally insensitive to the streetscape, some have said, or Mr. Marcus is too secretive, or too demanding of the city.

But if the world can be divided between visionaries and consensus-makers, Mr. Marcus is clearly in the first camp. "It's my money, I guess I can do whatever I want," he said. "I don't care what they say."

For the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, the hope is that the aquarium, whose profile rises like a cruise ship's prow across the street from Centennial Olympic Park, will make Atlanta a place where conventiongoers will want to stay an extra day or invite their family to join them. It is near the convention center, CNN headquarters and the Children's Museum. In 2007, Coca-Cola will open its new World of Coca-Cola museum nearby as well.

"All the pieces are starting to come together," said Lauren Kenworthy, a spokeswoman for the bureau. But the bureau has not been able to come up with its own economic projections, she said, because the aquarium has been so secretive.

The cone of silence around the aquarium has led to a cat-and-mouse game between Mr. Marcus and local reporters. Journalists have filed open records requests and scoured the Federal Register for clues to his intentions, documenting even his choice of paint brands.

The arrival of the whale sharks, who traveled from Taiwan in a UPS plane with special life-support systems, was supposed to happen under wraps, but the story got out when the Taiwanese called a news conference.

All of which has tickled Mr. Marcus, who has extracted confidentiality agreements from practically every vendor or V.I.P. who knows anything about the project.

Mr. Marcus, who also gives money to medical research, the Republican Party and a school he started for autistic children, originally came to Atlanta because the huge commercial spaces he needed to start Home Depot were readily available.

Like Ted Turner, another Atlanta mogul, Mr. Marcus has both a strong will and an attachment to the city. He considered, and rejected, many philanthropic gestures, including a symphony hall and a museum.

"I would say, 'Well that would be great, but only 10 percent of the people would want to do that,' " he said. Eventually, he realized that whenever he had extra time in a city, he was drawn to the aquarium.

Soon, he assembled a team of experts to travel the world, visiting major aquariums and asking the directors what they would do if they had no budgetary constraints.

Mr. Marcus had no particular fascination with marine life before this project, he said, but has since developed an acute awareness of the fragility of the oceans. "I haven't had a Chilean sea bass I guess for a year," he said. "I don't eat it because I know it's endangered."

Mr. Marcus has bought firmly into the belief in the aquarium world that sea creatures on display inspire public commitment to conservation. The aquarium, he said, will have the largest research facilities in the aquarium world, with operating rooms and breeding tanks, and will provide the first opportunity for scientists to study whale sharks at close range.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic. Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, N.J., has criticized his acquisition of the whale sharks, saying they often die in captivity. "When you're dealing with an endangered animal," Ms. Levine said, "I think it's better to do like an Imax production, that sort of thing."

Last week, Mr. Marcus gave reporters their first peek inside the aquarium, ushering them through an entrance that led to the ballroom.

After he introduced Mr. Puck, donned a chef's jacket and served some appetizers, "Octopus's Garden" began to play. A white curtain blocking a window the size of a movie screen fell away, and there was Ralph - or was it Norton? - front and center, his back dappled in a pattern that looked like sunlight through trees. Around him swam grunts and damselfish, a single hammerhead shark and a couple of sawfish.

But Mr. Marcus had eyes only for the whale shark. He stood transfixed, his back to his audience. "Look at the size of him," he said. And then, "Look at the size of that guy."