BALTIMORE – Once upon a time, Atlanta wanted to create the same kind of magic that enabled Baltimore to build a tourism destination around an aquarium. Those days seem long ago.
On Sunday, spacious walkways around the National Aquarium were mostly vacant. There was no queue at the aquarium’s main entrance. Outdoor cafes on an adjacent wharf were filled with empty tables; idle hosts beckoned passersby to step in for steamed crabs and other seafood treats.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the years before the Georgia Aquarium opened, in 2005, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor bustled. Harborplace, Baltimore’s version of Underground Atlanta, was crowded. Visitors flocked to the National Aquarium. The nearby Fells Point neighborhood, Baltimore’s version of Little Five Points, was emerging as a popular destination for folk art and tattooists. In 2009, Urban Land Institute named Baltimore, “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”
Recent years haven’t been kind to the Inner Harbor.
For starters, attendance at the main tourist destination – the National Aquarium – has been has been erratic since the Great Recession, according to various published reports that present information that seems internally inconsistent.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore self-reported about 1.37 million visitors in 2012. That figure doesn’t comport with a report from wbaltv.com and other Baltimore media.
The stories quote aquariums officials saying, in February 2014, that attendance had increased to 381,530 in the six-month period after the Blacktip Reef exhibit opened in August 2013. Officials said attendance in the same six-month period a year earlier was 372,740.
For these report to jive with the aquarium’s self-report, almost 1 million visitors would have to attend in the remaining six months of each reporting period.
The attendance issue aside, revenues from admissions, merchandise, services, and facilities rentals has increased since 2009. The annual gross receipts are: 2009, $28.1 million; 2010, $26.7 million; 2011, $27.1 million; 2012, $30.5 million; and 2013, $32.9 million, according to the most recent 990 tax form submitted by the National Aquarium.
Elsewhere in the Inner Harbor, a few cranes rise above two construction sites east of the harbor. Other parcels lay fallow as planned developments languish. Pleasure boating is virtually non-existent, despite a plethora of dockage that’s priced below than car parks.
Baltimore’s homicide rate and civil unrest has to factor into the recent dip in visitation to the Inner Harbor. Steve Duffy and his wife knew about the troubles before they arrived Sunday from their home in Fortaleza, Brazil. They came anyway, largely because the airfare worked out so they could spend a few days touring Baltimore and Washington before heading to see friends and family in California.
“We heard about what happened with the riots,” Duffy said. “We’re here only two days and are not concerned. We’re not going to venture out of the tourist area, and Monday we go to Washington. We didn’t want to stay here too long.”
Baltimore’s homicide rate was 208 and counting as of Monday afternoon. Civil protests broke out in April over the death of Freddie Gray, who died a week after his arrest by Baltimore police. Police now are trying to get a handle on a surge in youngsters who gather on city streets in neighborhoods to race and perform stunts on dirt bike motorcycles that typically have been reported as stolen, according to media reports.
At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, advocates hoped the aquarium would jumpstart urban renewal in the vicinity of Centennial Olympic Park. They’re still waiting.
Development has been sluggish as the local economy sagged as a result of the Great Recession. Residential and commercial developers now seem to have shifted their focus to neighborhoods west of the future Falcons stadium. That said, the aquarium benefits from synergy from recently built attractions including World of Coca Cola, College Football Hall of Fame, and Center for Civil and Human Rights.
However, the key benchmark of the aquarium’s success – visitation – has remained above 2 million a year in each of the past eight years, according to self-reported data from the aquarium. The annual gross receipts are: 2009, $52.9 million; 2010, $49.9 million; 2011, $61.6 million; 2012, $67.6 million; and 2013, $71.3 million, according to the most recent 990 tax form submitted by the Georgia Aquarium.
The record-high homicide rate in Baltimore this year certainly hasn’t helped spur visitation to its prime tourist and convention district, the Inner Harbor.
Baltimore has recorded 208 homicides this year, as of Monday afternoon. Most are gun deaths, though there are a fair number of deaths by stabbing and blunt force trauma, and even a few asphyxiations, according to reports by baltimoresun.com.
Baltimore’s homicide rate has increased by more than 33 percent, compared to 2014.
Atlanta’s homicide rate has increased by 19 percent but the numbers are vastly different – 57 year-to-date in 2015 compared to 48 for the same period in 2014, according to the Atlanta Police Department.
Baltimore’s tourist district is a bubble of safety. Homicides occur in neighborhoods surrounding the Inner Harbor. The harbor and downtown business district exist in a bubble shaped like a light bulb, with the screw end at the National Aquarium and the bulb spreading up into comfortable neighborhoods due north of the Inner Harbor, according to the map.
As a visitor from central New Jersey observed Sunday:
Baltimore’s two worlds do overlap when urban youths visit the Inner Harbor.
A shirtless young man peddled a bike along a causeway near the National Aquarium’s front door. He wore ear buds and quietly sang lyrics that seem to be from the 2013 album, Downtown: Life Under the Gun. The song is the fourth track on an album produced by Def Jam Recordings. The album cover contains an advisory for explicit content.
A few apparent tourists turned their heads to watch, and returned to their conversations.
A number of folks visiting Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on a brilliant afternoon said the killings didn’t scare them away. Their comments sound a bit hardened toward the prevalence of urban violence and social mores.
“I saw the news when we got here and saw three shootings right away, and I said, ‘This is just like Newark’,” said Ron Marzan, who said he’d traveled from central New Jersey to Baltimore for a weekend trip with family and friends. “Most seem to be young teenagers, like children. It’s gang related.”
Marzan and Perez were traveling with their families, and waiting outside the aquarium for Perez’ son to finish the dolphin tour. Perez said he likes what he’d seen of Baltimore.
“Compared to San Francisco, this area is better,” Perez said. “San Francisco stinks a lot because of the bums. They pee anywhere.”
Pee stink or not, on Sunday there were no crowds on sidewalks and plazas near the National Aquarium. The sense of solitude stretched to the main doors of National Aquarium; to Harborplace, a retail district built by the company that renovated Underground Atlanta, Rouse Co.; and Power Plant Live!, a former power plant that was shuttered in 1973 and repurposed as a commercial center.
Weather wasn’t keeping folks home – skies were clear and a light breeze tamped the effect of a heat index of 90 degrees. A tax-free shopping week for back-to-school items was wrapping up, but it had been underway for a week. The Orioles baseball game didn’t absorb the crowds, given that TV coverage showed acres of empty seats in a 1:35 p.m. game in which the Orioles defeated the Oakland A’s by a score of 18-2.