Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s ultimate plan includes two thriving, successful facilities, including this downtown Clearwater facility that would house the primary tourism and education components. The current facility on Island Estates would continue its mission of a hospital and research facility.
CLEARWATER – At a rare Wednesday meeting of the City Council March 6, council members unanimously approved three items that will allow the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build a new $160 million facility on the bluff where City Hall now stands.
But the deal will be dead if Clearwater voters turn thumbs down on a 60-year, no-cost lease of the City Hall site to the aquarium.
Ever since the 2011 blockbuster movie Dolphin Tale made a movie star of CMA’s best known resident, Winter the tailless dolphin who learned to swim with a prosthetic tail, hordes of visitors have be overwhelming the former sewage treatment plant that now serves as the aquarium. And a recent study by the Business Department of the University of South Florida predicts that the tourists and the money are going to keep pouring in for years to come.
“Our future growth (at our current location on Island Estates) is limited” and the aquarium desperately need a bigger facility elsewhere, its CEO, David Yates, told the council.
But the choice of sites is limited because the aquarium must be located close to a source of the saltwater needed to flush and fill its tanks.
Merchants, residents, Chamber of Commerce officials, a Ruth Eckerd Hall executive, a tour boat operator and even a 9-year-old boy went to the podium and enthusiastically endorsed the plan. The only people who didn’t endorse it were a woman who questioned its cost and a man who said that the item should be put on the ballot of the regularly scheduled election in March 2014 instead of holding a special election in November.
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” said Doug Montgomery, chair of the board of the rival Florida Aquarium in Tampa, which opened in 1995. “We’ve been there. We’ve done that.”
Montgomery said that the actual cost of his aquarium was double the amount predicted, and the first-year visitor count, predicted to be 1.8 million, turned out to be less than a million. He tried to say more but Mayor George Cretekos cut him off, saying that what Montgomery was saying was not pertinent to the discussion of whether Clearwater should ask its voters to approve a 60-year no-cost lease of the City Hall site to CMA.
Restaurateur and CMA board member Frank Chivas then drew applause from the audience when he told the council that the Florida Aquarium must be getting “really nervous when they send their chairman here.”
Cretekos and the council then narrowed the discussion down to three topics and voted on each one separately.
The first authorized Clearwater staffers to notify Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark that Clearwater intends to hold an election, regarding the lease of the City Hall site to CMA, on Nov. 5 and she should start getting ready for it. CMA will pay the estimated $70,000 cost of the election.
The second instructed City Attorney Pam Akin to draft a “memorandum of understanding” between CMA and the city regarding such things as the lease of the City Hall property and a possible 50-cent surcharge on aquarium tickets to reimburse the city for the expenses it will incur because of the deal. The third instructed Akin to have her staff assist CMA staffers in drafting ballot language that covers everything required by the City Charter but does not exceed the 75-word maximum allowed by law.