Published News

002 Magazine - February 2003

Maurice Bobb
The Big Fish Come Downtown

...continued from Published News

The slated February 15, 2003 opening date of the Downtown Aquarium is fast approaching. The $38 million world-class aquatic complex developed by Midas-touched restaurateur Tilman J. Fertitta, chairman and chief executive officer of Landry's, but already the seemingly Anastasia-like fantasyland is taking shape.

There's the 90-foot Ferris wheel, which stands high above the bustling I-45 freeway for all frustrated motorists stuck in traffic to ogle at fish-eyed like recess-deprived children, there' the public aquarium, which boasts 500,000 gallons of underwater tanks with more than 200 species of domestic and international marine life, the observation tower, the carousel, a seafood restaurant, a ballroom, dancing fountains, and, of course, the shark tank.

That's right. The shark tank. A 200,000-gallon Shark voyage, which will allow "Jaws"-crazed visitors an all-access jaunt by train through an acrylic tunnel filled to the gills with jagged-toothed predators. It goes without saying that this is the star attraction for the six-acre sea-life oasis on the redeveloped 400 Block of Bagby.

"As soon as I knew that this property would go up for bid, my brain went to work," said Galveston native Fertitta. "I came up with this whole entertainment complex because I know that people love water and they love fish. So I said, 'You know what?' I'll put a shark tank in there and have a train go through it and turn it into a major, major attraction."

Some of the other major attractions in the exhibit vying for attention include snapping turtles, alligators, skates, octopus, wolf and electric eel, grouper, tetra, peacock bass, poison arrow frogs, fresh water sting rays, mata mata turtles, piranha, spiny lobsters, barracuda and many previously scorned goldfish flushed down Houston's toilets. OK, so there's no goldfish, but that still leaves plenty of gilled pleasure for John Q. Public.

"When people come to the Downtown Aquarium, they will be entertained like never before, " said Animal Husbandry Manager Jim Prappas. "Our visitors will see things they have never seen, and will learn about all types of animals from all over the world. They are in for a very exciting experience."

Additionally, the aquarium will offer fully-themed exhibits (for a yet-to-be-determined fee, of course) that will teach visitors about aquatic life in various parts of the world, with life-like scenes capturing each geographic location, including the Louisiana Swamp, the South Sea Ship Wreck, the Amazon River, the Mayan Temple, the Gulf of Mexico and an Interactive Area where visitors will have a hands-on experience with free reign to lay a hand on touch tanks and ask the biologist on site all sort of intelligent and unintelligent questions alike.

The 4-seat seafood restaurant, Aquarium Restaurant, features a 100-gallon aquarium for upscale seafood dining with the illusion of being at the bottom of the sea. (Would-be pirates beware: as this is an upscale eatery, there's a standing "no-eye patch" rule strictly enforced by management. Also, absolutely no concealed harpoons allowed without proper permits. The 120-seat Marina Matinee Café will provide lunch and dinner in actual reproductions of seagoing vessels neatly anchored to the deck along the restaurant's waterway. Consequently, this means all seasickness prone land-lovers should steer clear.

The Dive is a chic bar offering an option for before and after dinner beverages for late-night theater fans and downtown socialites looking to be seen.

The Ballroom features a spacious 6,000 square-foot ballroom that can be transformed to hold many sizes of groups, receptions and slightly irked, torch-wielding mobs.

And what would this wonderful water paradise be without the requisite gift shop? Alas, there's plenty of booty in the Treasure Chest Gift Shop, which has all the gifts from under the sea, including souvenirs, toys, apparel, stuffed animals and barely worn Firestone tires ensconced in genuine seaweed.

Two years ago, Landry's was the winning bid among five businesses and non-profit groups for a long-term lease on the city's Fire Station No. 1 and the neighboring Central Waterworks plant at 440 Bagby behind the Wortham Theater Center. The building was completely vacated by the City of Houston and things began getting a little "fishy" for Space City soon thereafter.

Quality-of-life aficionados balked, though, citing the Ferris wheel and observation tower as sure-fire eyesore in the Houston Skyline. Fertitta countered the criticism by pointing out the 2 million visitors the aquarium is expected to draw and the redevelopment of a blighted property.

"Who else could take an old building and come up with a concept for it," he said about the derelict waterworks building that's being developed as part of the Aquarium. "I brought it back to its historical nature. None of the quality of life people are giving us credit for that."

Fertitta is no stranger to criticism, though, having been scaled for spawning the Kemah Boardwalk, the manufactured replica of Galveston's wharf. But unlike Kemah, which took Fertitta nearly 8 years to complete, the Downtown Aquarium sprouted up faster than Jack's beanstalk.

"Kemah was a totally different project," Fertitta said. "I had a vision when I walked out of the Landry's there and it took nearly 8 years to get done. But this was something I was able to get done in 18 months."

Fertitta's quick-draw construction has all but quieted detractors who held the belief that his aquatic brainchild was yet another hare-brained monstrosity pushed on Houstonians by the city in its quest for defibrillating downtown Houston's warning entertainment vitae.

"Of course you're always going to have some detractors," Fertitta said. "But I think that a lot of them didn't see the finished product and they always tend to think that it's worse than it is. In the beginning, they were saying that it was just another restaurant. Well, it's anything but a restaurant. It's now the only public aquarium in Houston. And now that everyone is seeing the project finishing up, they're saying that it's great for the skyline of Houston and that it can be a great entertainment venue for visitors and locals alike to come downtown."

With aquariums spearheading the revitalization of other cities like New Orleans and Baltimore, supporters riding shotgun remain convinced Houston's own version of Atlantis will be a popular draw. "It will focus on children and family and direct attention to the Bayou, said Jordy Tollett, director of the city's convention and entertainment facilities department. "This is a natural draw." Mayor Lee P. Brown agrees:

"This is another chapter in the success story of downtown redevelopment. I believe this new establishment creates a western cornerstone in the Theater District and provides one more great reason to visit downtown Houston."

Additionally, officials are betting that the entertainment complex will enable the city to better complete for conventions.

"That's been one of the biggest slants on Houston," Fertitta said. "When conventions come to tow, we don't have enough for businessmen to do after they get out of meetings in the morning. There's just hasn't been that entertainment venue they've wanted. I mean, for many years, all that you could do in Houston was go to the Galleria and visit the museums. And luring tourists, businessmen and conventions requires a lot more that that."

Stuffy "Dilbert"-types are fine, but what about Houston's minivan crowd?

"We're a very family oriented company and I think that's going to be a huge part of our audience," Fertitta said. "But I also think that you'll see everybody come out to the aquarium. I think you'll see businessmen from out of town, local business people, the mother with 2 kids in school, with businessmen and secretaries having lunch in the Marina Matinee Café. There are so many different venues here. There's something here for everyone."

All of his 279 full-service restaurants notwithstanding, shouldn't Fertitta be just a little worried about the soft economy of late and the noticeable lack of greenbacks in the pockets' of downtown's business community?

"I'm not worried about that at all," Fertitta said. "I built my company in the 80s when times were the toughest. And I think that if you serve a good product and people perceive it to be a good value, you'll be successful. But this is only the beginning of what downtown Houston will become. I think that towards the end of 2003, when more of the hotels open up, you're going to see downtown really come alive."

Only time will tell if Fertitta's latest venture will be hailed as downtown Houston's best catch yet. But it's probably safe to assume that Houstonians will be more than happy to ride the wave.

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