Opinion » The Rant

Water World: The Coliseum Could be an Aquarium

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Well, I lost my job. Before you roll your eyes and close your paper or your browser window, hear me out. This isn't going to be one of those "millennial complaining about adulthood's minor setbacks" columns. I've got some leads lined up and some freelance work in the pipeline, though I'm willing to listen if you've got something for me. I've adjusted my avocado toast budget. I'll be fine. No, this is going to be a "millennial complaining about how the Mid-South Coliseum isn't an aquarium" piece.

It seems so obvious. Of all the redevelopment plans that have been proposed for the Fairgrounds, I'm surprised something like an aquarium hasn't seriously been considered. Unlike other ideas I've seen, an aquarium is something a diverse mix of residents and tourists can enjoy. I am not trying to claim this as an original or unique idea. But I did tweet the following in May 2016: "IDEA — Repurpose what can be salvaged of the Coliseum into an aquarium. Proximity to CMOM, Zoo, Pink Palace make it a perfect location." It could get some public funding, grants, private donors, and stuff so it doesn't require people to buy stuff to stay afloat.

David Miller | Dreamstime
  • David Miller | Dreamstime

Get it? Stay afloat? Hoo boy, I kill me. Anyway, I heard the city of Memphis is reopening the planning process for redeveloping the Fairgrounds, and I've had some time on my hands. So, between phone interviews and checking my email every 14 seconds, I've been gathering research and evidence to support my case. First, the Coliseum is just the right size, and it's in a good location. At approximately 110,000 square feet, the existing building is comparable in size to facilities like the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. With the surrounding acreage, there's space to build on or expand later. Visitors from the suburbs, as well as tourists from Mississippi, Arkansas, and beyond could easily access it by I-240 via Airways, or take Hollywood from I-40.

Families could spend a summer morning playing at the Children's Museum followed by an afternoon of deep sea exploration. The Pink Palace and its CTI Giant Theater are just down the road. Football fans in town for the Liberty Bowl and Southern Heritage Classic could add another activity to their itineraries that amplifies and disperses the events' economic impact. It would bring revenue to local businesses in the surrounding neighborhoods year-round. In 2016, the Tennessee Aquarium's 745,000 visitors generated $72.2 million for Chattanooga businesses. Those are some pretty big numbers. "But what about parking?" some will ask, as they always do. Well, there are enough spaces to accommodate 60-something thousand people at the football stadium, plus street parking in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Tigers play six or seven home games a year. This season's schedule so far includes only one 11 a.m. kickoff. If one of the Liberty Bowl's tenants are hosting an event that might complicate parking, here's an idea: Take the bus. Catch a Lyft. Or go some other time. The fish aren't going anywhere.

Moving the aquarium animals to another campus would give the zoo room to grow without encroaching further on the park. Guests could purchase a day pass that includes admission to both attractions and a shuttle ride from the ample spaces at the Fairgrounds. The Greensward could return to its original and best use as a refuge for picnickers, frisbee throwers, and stoned teens.

Most importantly, think of all the kids in Memphis who have only seen fish that were fried and served with hushpuppies and slaw. They deserve field trips as cool as the ones my generation enjoyed — back in the good old days when the Wonders exhibit brought Napoleon's carriage and Catherine the Great's jewels to town every year. And if that's not convincing enough, I'd like to offer one final, irresistibly petty argument: Nashville doesn't have an aquarium.

One small concern might be finding a way to pay for such an ambitious project. I acknowledge there are some logistical details to work out. But big dreams call for big ideas, and I'm happy to help in any way I can (as I mentioned, I have some time). I'm confident that this idea can reach the right people, who will see the myriad ways in which the city would benefit. And the Timberlake Family Aquarium or the FedEx Grizzlies Servicemaster Center for Aquatic Research will one day become one of Memphis' signature attractions.

Jen Clarke is a digital marketing specialist and an unapologetic Memphian.

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