MADEIRA BEACH – The planned Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium at John’s Pass Village will be a boon for Madeira Beach’s economy, E. Howard Rutherford, the operation’s CEO told the Board of Commissioners at their April 24 workshop.
The facility is expected to host more than 250,000 visitors annually, and generate more than $8 million in direct economic impact locally, Rutherford said. If construction of the $5 million operation begins as planned this June, a grand opening will be held in February 2013.
But for that to happen, help is needed from the city in the form of a loan, Rutherford said.
“In order for us to remain on track for a February 2013 grand opening, Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium must secure a construction loan in the amount of $2.5 million to provide necessary cash flow during the design and construction of the attraction,” he said.
The city is being asked to fund a certificate of deposit secured loan or agree to be the co-signer or guarantor for a $2.5 million construction “bridge loan,” Rutherford said.
The loan would be repaid through capital campaign pledges, he indicated. About $1.1 million in cash from business partners has been raised to date, along with nearly $500,000 in grants secured and $345,000 from foundation supporters. The total of around $2 million compares to $750,000 that had been pledged when the aquarium first announced its expansion and move from St. Petersburg to John’s Pass a year ago.
The amount raised so far represents about half of the estimated $5 million construction cost. The loan guarantee “shouldn’t cost the city a penny,” Rutherford assured the commission.
Securities would be pledged to back the loan, said team member Ken Cherven, President of Bank of Tampa’s Pinellas County Division. The city would also receive interest earned on the money loaned.
Commission members and City Manager Shane Crawford appeared receptive to helping the marine center/aquarium get under way, but had problems with some aspects of the loan proposal.
Mayor Travis Palladeno stressed the advantages of having the attraction in the community.
“Just looking at what the Clearwater Aquarium has done for Clearwater, and the one in Tampa – it’s definitely a gem in your city,” he said.
Vice Mayor Robin Vander Velde said she is concerned about tying up the city’s money when a number of building projects, which may need cash, are pending.
Crawford was also concerned commitment to the loan could tie up funds that may be needed for other planned city projects. “I don’t know if we can do what we need to do (without the money),” he said.
Crawford said the city’s participation would involve some risk.
“It’s a roll of the dice. There’s no way we could guarantee we would get our money back,” Crawford said. But, in his view, “This is a good risk to take, all things considered.”
Timing of the loan request will likely delay the planned June construction start of the Secrets of the Sea facility.
Crawford warned any action by the city could not come until the commission meets in May. That may not be in time to allow construction to start in June, he said.