Wednesday, May 17, 2000

Aquarium sets new standard

        The Newport Aquarium's first birthday cake should have been colored green and covered with gold doubloons.

        The palace of water and gills is an overwhelming success at attracting visitors, enticing them to spend money and creating jobs.

        The good news at the turnstiles and cash registers is not just the aquarium's success story.

        Nor does it belong solely to Newport, Campbell County or Northern Kentucky.

        The success the aquarium has spawned gives everyone in the region a reason to celebrate.

        This is a shining example of how a first-class attraction can benefit everyone, regardless of which side of the river it occupies.

Money incubator
        As of Monday, the end of the aquarium's first year of operation, attendance stood at 1,251,292 — 50,000 visitors above the wildest projections.

        The aquarium generates money and jobs. So says a report from Kentucky's Department of Travel. Tourist spending in surrounding Campbell County is up nearly 500 percent, from $17.8 million in 1998 to $86.5 million in 1999. Tourism-created jobs increased over the same period, from 490 positions to 2,271.

        Barbara Atwood crunched the numbers for that report. She's a research manager for Kentucky's travel department. She gave me a ballpark figure for the aquarium's share of the increases:

        “Put it at 80 percent.”

Regional magnet
        Monday afternoon, the aquarium's parking lot held cars with license plates from five Kentucky counties and four in Ohio as well as other out-of-state tags from Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida and California.

        Many of the cars' occupants didn't plan on just doing some shark-seeing and then driving straight home.

        Jeff Mills took the day off from selling real estate to drive nine children and adults from Scottsburg, Ind. Next stop: Union Terminal.

        “There's lots to see at the museums there,” Jeff told me. “That old train station is awesome.”

        Miami University students Steve Mittenberger and Jessica Wiltshire were making their sixth visit to the aquarium. With every trip, Steve said, they also take in a Reds game, shop or eat in Cincinnati.

        At dawn, Dave and Jennifer Fromme piled their sons, Jason and Rusty, into their Chevy truck. They drove three hours from Kentucky's Breckinridge County to see the aquarium. After eating lunch while sitting on the truck's tailgate, Dave planned to take the family “up north to see Kings Island's tall roller coasters.”

        If visitors needed directions, Melissa Pope could help. She staffs the aquarium's information desk and cheerfully dispenses maps of Greater Cincinnati.

        Posing as Joe Tourist, I asked her about nearby places to eat and how to get to the Cincinnati Art Museum in Eden Park.

        She mentioned a range of restaurants on both sides of the river and grabbed a map to trace my route from the aquarium to the museum.

        Never once did she treat the Ohio River as a barrier. To her, it is a link, uniting people across the region.

        Melissa's efforts and the travel plans of the aquarium visitors I spoke with taught me about the positive effects a successful enterprise can have on both sides of the river. They also raised hopes for increased regional cooperation.

        Only by joining forces, on both shores of the Ohio, will we be able to work for our mutual benefit.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379.