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Georgia Aquarium expansion goes on amid president hunt

Photo by Donnie Ikpa

Photo by Donnie Ikpa

ATLANTA -- Dolphins are still coming to the Georgia Aquarium in a major expansion this fall even as the world's largest aquarium looks for its fourth president in five years, founder and board chairman Bernie Marcus said.

Anthony Godfrey announced on Tuesday that he was leaving as president of one of Atlanta's top tourist draws, citing personal reasons. Both of Godfrey's predecessors left for other opportunties.

Marcus, the Home Depot co-founder turned philanthropist, says he expects to name a successor soon and will hire someone committed to the aquarium's missions of entertainment, education and research.

"This is the kind of opportunity that is pretty unusual," Marcus told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday. "This is not like running a losing show. We don't have any major, serious problems. It is not going to be hard to bring somebody in. We're going to, probably in the next two weeks, be announcing somebody."

Marcus declined to elaborate on the reason for Godfrey's departure, which he said caught him off guard.

"It's hard for me because I was unprepared for this, frankly," he said. "But people have their own reasons for doing things. I don't question that."

The leadership void comes as the aquarium plans its most ambitious project since opening in 2005, a $110 million expansion which will feature dolphins. Marcus says he expects the new exhibit to boost attendance to 3 million visitors annually.

"When people come here, they come to see and learn about the seas," Marcus said. "How can they do that without the dolphins? This was planned from the beginning. It's fun for people, and it fits into our strategy of research ... Dolphins are a major part of the sea population."

The exhibit is scheduled to open in November, and should give a much-needed shot in the arm to attendance at the aquarium, which Marcus said is down for the first time in five years. Marcus attributes the slide to the economy and an unusually cold, wet Southern winter.

Though he said he expects attendance to be down for 2010 overall, he said there has been an uptick in visitors with the warmer weather, and said May, June and July are the aquarium's most popular months.

"We'll know better when summer hits," he said, also noting the aquarium's good fortune among similar venues like the Chattanooga Aquarium, which has lost visitors to Georgia. "We're not trying to kill any other aquariums, we're just trying to bring people to the city of Atlanta."

To that end, Marcus said his focus is on strategy for the aquarium and the facility is focused on a five-year plan.

"Our key is always to have something brand new, something exciting," he said. "Broadway shows don't have the same show every year. We have to keep this place alive and keep people coming back."

Marcus said visitors should expect to see more manta rays. The aquarium currently has the only two on display in the country.

For now, the plan does not include another whale shark. The aquarium is the only one outside of Asia to feature whale sharks, and currently boasts four in a 6.3-million gallon tank designed to hold six whale sharks, the largest fish in the world.