Illustration courtesy of SECRETS OF THE SEA MARINE EXPLORATION CENTER
Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium is no longer scheduled to open Nov. 12 at John’s Pass Village after the lease was terminated.
MADEIRA BEACH – The much-touted Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium will not be coming to Madeira Beach.
Faced with missing a second announced opening date, the aquarium’s board of directors announced in a press release Sept. 30 that its lease on the 13,500-square-foot site in the Hubbard garage building at John’s Pass Village was being terminated.
The information released said the building’s owner, AEGON USA Realty Associates, had cited “the length and breakdown of negotiations toward finalizing a construction loan” to build the facility as the reason for the lease cancellation. Certain loan conditions could not be resolved, and efforts to negotiate a short extension were unsuccessful. AEGON had been working closely with Secrets of the Sea as both landlord and potential guarantor of the construction loan.
The aquarium’s board of directors will now continue to evaluate the organization’s future course, including a search for new locations. Its past has been marked by missed construction and opening dates, with financing shortfalls cited as the reason.
The marine center was first announced with much fanfare in April 2011. The official opening date was set for December 12, 2012. A follow-up press party a year later extended the opening to this year on Nov. 12.
At that time, build out of the facility was expected to begin in early May.
No construction on the site has taken place as of Oct. 1, Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford said.
Failure of the Secrets of the Sea attraction to become a reality at John’s Pass was a major disappointment for the city, Crawford acknowledged.
“We are deeply saddened by the news, but we did everything we could to make it happen,” he said.
Crawford said the city was “somewhat helpless in what it could do to aid the aquarium.”
Crawford said he was authorized to speak with AEGON officials in New York on the center’s behalf to try to renegotiate or save the deal. “At the end of the day, they said they have shareholders to answer to and the building being vacant and not generating any rent revenue was no longer an option for them,” Crawford said.
The marine center’s projection of 250,000 visitors a year, bringing in more than $8 million in tourism revenue, “would have been a definite boost for us as we continue to develop and bolster our city,” Crawford said.
CEO Howard Rutherford predicted in April the marine exploration center and aquarium would become “the number one tourist attraction, not only in the state of Florida, but in the Southeast and the entire United States.”
The center would have occupied 13,500 square feet of space on two levels of the Hubbard garage building, and serve as “the epicenter for marine research, technology and innovation in the Southeast United States,” Rutherford said.
The plans included 13 aquarium environments, 14 interactive exhibits, state-of-the-art Sea Life Support Systems, a learning center and the Sea Shop gift shop.
Now, the attraction will go elsewhere, if the right pieces fall into place.
Financing the marine center’s $4 million cost has been an issue from the beginning.
The first announced opening date of December 12, 2012 had to be dropped after the project ran into fundraising difficulties and a critical $2.5 million loan fell through.
However, in April Secrets of the Sea board chairperson Lari Johnson said the center’s financial backing appeared solid. At that time, Rutherford had said, “We have secured the funding needed to begin construction.”
Johnson said she remains very confident the Secrets of the Sea attraction will be built. She said the center was in the last phases of exhibit and technology design “when we got hit by a bullet we should have ducked.”
Johnson said, “We have a concept so unique and so timely. This needs to be built somewhere, hopefully in the beach communities.”
A time to regroup is next, Johnson said.
“Right now, we need to reorganize, and to plan our next steps,” she said. That will include looking for adequate locations with an ability to house the center, preferably in the local area she said.
St. Pete Beach City Manager Mike Bonfield confirmed the group is reviewing the plans of the former St. Pete Beach police station “to see if it’s feasible for their needs.”
Johnson said the current financial backers have been “incredibly supportive.” But new supporters are also being sought “to help us as we go to our next step.”
Despite the setback, Johnson said she still believes the Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium “has a ton of potential.”
“We have everything in place we need to move forward,” she said, adding, “We just need to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”