Up to $7.5 million grant from west side tax fund teed up for aquarium

By Maggie Lee

An updated version of this story has been posted to reflect full board approval of the spend.

By a 2-1 vote, a panel of leaders of Atlanta’s development authority has recommended their colleagues spend up to $7.5 million from a special tax fund on the $108 million expansion of the private Georgia Aquarium. But the full board may repeat a Monday conversation over whether a new shark exhibit ask comes when there are more pressing public needs.

A sketch of the Georgia Aquarium's $108 million expansion. Courtesy Georgia Aquarium/Jessica Fontana (Digital Media)

A sketch of the Georgia Aquarium’s $108 million expansion. Courtesy Georgia Aquarium/Jessica Fontana (Digital Media)

“A question that’s been put to me is: predator exhibit versus affordable housing, is it a zero sum game … is this a bucket of money that could not ever be used for affordable housing?” Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong asked her fellow members of the Invest Atlanta board, meeting as a small committee Monday to consider the aquarium’s ask.

The aquarium wants money from the Westside TAD — a district where an increment of property taxes are plowed back into the district, typically for private projects meant to generate yet more growth and, down the line, more taxes to pay for city operations.

In this case, the argument goes, a bigger aquarium means more ticket sales, more merchandise sales, and a payoff for the city in bigger sales taxes. It’s the same argument that got The Center for Civil and Human Rights a $40 million allocation for its construction from the Westside TAD.

But then again, what if a developer came and asked for money to pay for putting a few below-market-rate apartments in a new building? That’s something else TAD money is regularly used for: trying to make sure Atlanta accommodates people of all incomes.

Invest Atlanta President and CEO Eloisa Klementich said it’s not an either-or situation. She also said the aquarium has never gotten TAD money or cash from the city’s general fund.

“This [expansion] is being funded … by philanthropy and the business community; and they’ve said, ‘Look, we love Atlanta and we’re going to do this because we think it’s important, but we also want to see the city alongside us as well,'” said Klementich, telling the board members about the proposal.

Invest Atlanta board Vice Chairwoman Constance Barkley Lewis told her colleagues she was struggling with the vote.

“I understand the value of the aquarium. I also know that there are foundations that could write a check for $7 million to the aquarium,” Barkley-Lewis said.

Klementich said that the aquarium is a key driver in Downtown tourism. That’s not just visitor ticket sales, that’s car rentals, hotel rooms and so on.

Invest Atlanta staff also said that the city would recoup the money in five years of aquarium-generated sales taxes. They also said the fund generates $4.5 million to $5 million per year, and the aquarium money would be allocated over seven years, so there would still be money available for housing or other projects.

In the end, Archibong was the sole “no” vote. The entire Invest Atlanta board is set to consider the question at its Wednesday meeting.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature renewed a state sales tax break for large aquarium construction. It’s capped at about $4.5 million.

(Details of the proposal here.)

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

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