From the Jersey Shore to the Georgia Aquarium
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From the Jersey Shore to the Georgia Aquarium

Under new CEO Brian Davis and chairman Steve Koonin, the Georgia Aquarium is looking toward the future.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The expansion will bring the aquarium to 11 million gallons in capacity and expand its size to 680,000 square feet.
The expansion will bring the aquarium to 11 million gallons in capacity and expand its size to 680,000 square feet.

Mike Leven’s first stint as president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Aquarium, from 2008-09, ended when he became president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Leven, a highly regarded executive with decades of experience in the hospitality industry, returned to Atlanta in 2015, as CEO and chairman of the aquarium’s board of directors.

Late last year, the aquarium announced that Leven would retire from those positions, though he will remain on the board.

Steve Koonin, CEO of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and an aquarium board member since it opened in 2005, succeeded Leven as board chairman.

Mike Levin retired as CEO and board chairman of the Georgia Aquarium, but will remain on the board.

In a statement released at the time by the aquarium, Leven said, “I have been lucky to serve Georgia Aquarium twice in its history and I’m proud of all of our staff and volunteers for their hard work in setting this organization apart from other destinations and educating the millions of our guests about our ocean.”

Leven, 82, has been succeeded as CEO by Brian Davis, who has been the aquarium’s executive vice president and now also is its president.

Growing up in New Jersey, Davis spent summers at the beach, developing a personal connection with the ocean.

In September 1992, after graduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree focusing on marine biology, he became an education instructor at the New York Aquarium.

Brian Davis brings a strong background in education to the top role at the Georgia Aquarium.

Davis came to Atlanta in 1994, initially developing education materials for Zoo Atlanta and then alternating between positions in education with the Cobb County schools and the Georgia Aquarium (where he was among the earliest hires). Davis brings a strong background in education to the aquarium, holding a master’s degree in secondary science education and a doctorate in education and teaching, both from Georgia State University.

He left Atlanta in late 2014 to become president and chief executive officer at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn., before returning to Atlanta in mid-2018 as the aquarium’s executive vice president.

In a statement issued by the aquarium, Koonin said, “This is a banner year for the Aquarium with our largest expansion opening in the fall. I’m confident in Brian’s leadership and experience to lead us into a new decade and continue the Aquarium’s reputation as one of the best aquariums in the U.S.”

To maintain that position, late this fall the Georgia Aquarium plans to open a four-story, 1 million-gallon saltwater shark gallery with floor-to-ceiling windows for viewing. The species on view may include hammerhead, sand tiger and sandbar sharks. The aquarium broke ground in September 2018 for the expansion, which, with other improvements, carries a reported price tag of $108 million.

Invest Atlanta, the city of Atlanta’s economic development authority, voted 4-3 in August to donate $7.5 million over a five-year period to the aquarium’s “Expansion 2020” project. The funds will come through the Westside Tax Allocation District, created before the 1996 Olympic Games to boost the economic fortunes of the western portion of downtown Atlanta and neighborhoods to the west.

Expansion 2020 is set to open a four-story, 1 million-gallon saltwater shark gallery with floor-to-ceiling windows for viewing.

Invest Atlanta previously provided $25 million in 2014 when the aquarium expanded, adding its dolphin exhibit.

The aquarium employs more than 600 people and has nearly 1,200 volunteers. According to Invest Atlanta, “The expansion will add 22 full-time employees and 20 part-time employees. Currently, the Georgia Aquarium generates $5.5 million in sales tax [annually]. The expansion will generate an additional $1.3 million.”

“As part of this expansion, the Georgia Aquarium will enhance its Sponsored Education Admissions Grant program to provide additional free admission grants to schools in the Westside. Scholarships to rising college students pursuing degrees in aquatic animal medicine will also be provided. It’s anticipated that a minimum of 10 per year for 10 years will be awarded. In addition, a training program for potential Georgia Aquarium employees will be developed and offered at Westside Works in Vine City,” Invest Atlanta stated in a review of the aquarium’s grant application.

The new entrance is to include interactive media and a light display.

The development of the aquarium benefited from a $250 million donation by Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, and his wife, Billi.* Ground breaking for the aquarium was in May 2003. It is located across the street from the north end of Centennial Park along Baker and Luckie streets, on a nine-acre plot of land donated by The Coca-Cola Company.

The aquarium opened in November 2005, with hundreds of species housed in 9 million gallons of water. Over time the aquarium has added exhibits of manta rays, dolphins, penguins, sea lions, and puffins – and the popular whale sharks and beluga whales. The aquarium also offers a myriad of education and conservation programs.

The expansion is expected to include a new entrance on Baker Street.

The aquarium drew 3.4 million visitors in its first year and currently averages about 2.4 million visitors annually. Billed as the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world, the expansion will bring it to 11 million gallons in capacity and expand its size to 680,000 square feet.
The aquarium operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit under the federal tax code. In the fiscal year ending December 2017, the most recent for which a tax filing was available online, the aquarium reported revenues of nearly $93.8 million and expenses of $88 million.

The Georgia Aquarium also operates the Marineland Dolphin Adventure and a dolphin conservation field station, both in St. Augustine, Fla.

The Marcuses are the parents of AJT owner-publisher Michael Morris, who is also a member of the aquarium’s board.

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