The $14.5-million expansion of the current Clearwater Marine Aquarium scheduled for completion in early 2014 allows for another 250,000 visitors a year to the marine rescue center.
Photo courtesy of the CITY OF CLEARWATER
The proposed new Clearwater Marine Aquarium includes a two-story coral reef exhibit.
Photo courtesy of the CITY OF CLEARWATER
A front entry rendering of the proposed new Clearwater Main Aquarium. The facility would be about 203,000 square feet.
CLEARWATER – It is customary for performers who become movie stars to move into a more elegant residence, and Winter, the 7-year-old tailless dolphin who starred in the blockbuster 2011 movie, Dolphin Tale, is no exception.
If Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials get their wish, Winter, who now lives in the CMA’s converted sewage treatment plant on Island Estates, will move to a $160 million state-of-the-art aquarium where Clearwater City Hall now stands, on the downtown bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor.
On March 5 and 6, three CMA executives visited the City Council to explain the plan and ask for the councilmembers’ support for a referendum that will allow the city to lease the City Hall site to CMA for $1 a year. Without the voters’ support in the November referendum, the plan will be dead, so CMA has agreed to pay the estimated $70,000 cost of the referendum election.
The movie, loosely based on Winter’s true story of losing her tail to a crab trap line as a baby and learning to swim with a prosthetic tail, has been a windfall for the local economy.
A study done by the Business Department of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg predicts that the movie will pump anywhere from $2.1 billion to $4.9 billion into the local economy over the next five years, and the residual effect will continue long after that. Attendance at the aquarium jumped from 100,000 in 2006 to 750,000 in 2012, and revenue rose from $1.7 million to $21 million over the same period.
A $14.5 million expansion of the Island Estates facility, scheduled for completion next year, will increase its square-footage from 50,000 to 83,000 and will allow that facility to accommodate an additional 250,000 visitors a year, but that is not expected to be enough.
Island Estates is a primarily residential neighborhood, and the aquarium has very little room to expand there, so its staffers are hoping to get permission to build a new aquarium downtown.
The Island Estates facility, which would be renamed Clearwater Marine Hospital the same as the one in the movie, would be used mainly for education, research and rescue, and would have very little effect on tourism.
CMA officials want to combine the Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit, which is currently housed in rented space in the city’s Harborview Center, with a new aquarium on the City Hall site to create a tourist destination whose economic impact will spill over to nearby businesses.
“Let me emphasize that this is the public’s land, so what we’re showing you is purely conjectural,” and will not be built unless the voters approve the lease, Frank Dame, CMA’s executive vice president, told the council.
Ever since City Hall was built at 112 S. Osceola Ave. in 1964, critics have said that the property could have been put to better use. The three-story building doesn’t take advantage of the spectacular vistas of the harbor because much of its western side, the side with the best view, is taken up with stairwells and restrooms. Whenever a new City Hall is built, critics say, it should be built on less valuable land that the city owns elsewhere, and the site on the bluff should be used for something that will take full advantage of its natural beauty. And the CMA officials feel that their aquarium would be perfect for the site.
The proposed three-level, 203,000-square-foot main facility, with its 2.5-million-gallon dolphin tank, would be no taller than the current City Hall and would house the dolphin viewing area. Other exhibits would feature manatees, otters, a coral reef and Everglades flora and fauna.
The architectural renderings the CMA officials produced include suggested upgrades to Coachman Park, for which the city would have to foot the bill. City Manager Bill Horne said that the city has money in its budget for a new City Hall, but has not set aside funds for the Coachman Park improvements.
Admission fees, souvenir sales, corporate and individual donations, and grants from the federal, state, county and city governments would fund the new aquarium
“But we will not be coming to you for any general fund dollars,” former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who serves on the CMA board of directors, promised the council. Instead, the city’s contribution will come from such things as parking fee revenue, which is expected to rise despite the fact that the aquarium will have its own 630-space parking garage.
Aquarium officials predict that without the downtown aquarium, annual visitation would peak at around 750,000 in 2016 and remain flat for at least the next four years. But if the new facility opens in 2017, they predict, attendance will top 2.5 million that year and drop only slightly in the following four years.
CMA ‘s chief executive officer, David Yates, said that he believes Dolphin Tale “will be the No. 1 movie of all time for tourism creation.”
Mayor George Cretekos remembered that a collie named Lassie was the top-rated animal star of his boyhood.
“Winter could become this generation’s Lassie,” he predicted.