Benson spoke to the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club Thursday, sharing how the aquarium had celebrated its 20th anniversary in May 2012.
He said the downtown Chattanooga area saw a lot of growth, a factor later leading to positive effects on other nearby areas — including Cleveland. He recounted his experience of visiting the city and later returning to accept a job as a reporter for the local NBC television affiliate before joining the aquarium’s staff.
The city looked different the second time around, having seen the opening of several new businesses and restaurants around the aquarium downtown.
“I was really surprised at how much downtown had changed,” Benson said.
Benson said the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce estimates the aquarium has helped generate about $2 billion in tourism revenue for the city since it started and about $77 million per year.
With people coming from several different states each year, the Chattanooga area has not been hit as hard economically as other areas of the country. In fact, he said, the city’s tourism industry likely factored in Volkswagen and Amazon making the decision to invest in the area.
When the aquarium first started in 1992, it focused on freshwater wildlife, in part to raise awareness of the importance of conservation of the area’s rivers. It now consists of two separate buildings, one focusing on creatures found in freshwater and one focusing on the ocean. Though the aquarium broadened its focus, sharing the importance of conservation remains an import part of what the aquarium’s staff do, Benson said.
“It’s more relevant today than it has been,” Benson said.
His first experience with the aquarium was volunteering to assist as a scuba diver. He had also dived in rivers around the area and seen firsthand the variety of creatures living in the waters around Tennessee. Benson said he hoped the aquarium’s efforts would promote biodiversity, the number of different species in a particular spot.
He recounted learning about a species of frog which hatched its eggs in its stomach without harming them. Baby frogs would literally hop out of their mothers’ mouths. The species went extinct before scientists were able to learn how the process worked, eliminating the possibility of any positive research which could have impacted humans.
Studying creatures found in the water have had positive impacts on medical research in the past, Benson said. For example, blood drawn from horseshoe crabs is used in the manufacture of some pharmaceuticals to prevent bacterial infection in humans.
The aquarium has also partnered with television chef Alton Brown to promote biodiversity by encouraging people to try new kinds of seafood. People always eating the same types of fish means certain types are becoming more scarce, Benson said. Encouraging fisherman to catch different fish because of consumer demand would help, he said.
The aquarium also puts a lot of emphasis on its educational programs for children. One such program is the “Keeper Kids” program which allows children to spend time with keepers at the aquarium and see what does on behind the scenes. He said he loves seeing groups of kids at the aquarium because of their enthusiasm. He said the programs promote the importance of math and science, and he hopes at least some of them will be inspired to be scientists do important research someday.
“We need the future scientists,” he said.
Also at the meeting, members signed up to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Members of the group were set to work on a house in Habitat’s Victory Cove neighborhood this Saturday.
Pat Fuller, president of Bradley Sunrise Rotary, announced the date of the club’s annual fundraiser with former game show host Bob Eubanks as the speaker on Aug. 24. She also announced a previous speaker candidate had agreed to come to a club event. Instead of having two speakers at the same event, the club will likely have another event this summer. The result will be an “orange and white day” with Butch Jones, head coach of the University of Tennessee football team. Details of the event are still to be determined.