CLEARWATER – Before city officials can enter into an agreement for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to lease the current City Hall property, raze City Hall and build a new $160 million aquarium on the site, the voters must approve the lease in a special election that would be held on Nov. 5.
At the Clearwater City Council’s May 13 work session, City Attorney Pam Akin presented drafts of the proposed referendum and the ordinance that would enact it if the voters approve the project.
“The CMA has outgrown its current facilities and needs to build a new facility in order to accomplish its mission to preserve marine life and the environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in education, research, rescue, rehabilitation and release,” a staff memo to the City Council explained.
Thrilled by the success of the 2011 Alcon movie, Dolphin Tale – loosely based on the life story of Winter, the dolphin who lost her tail to a crab trap accident as a baby and went on to become the star of CMA’s dolphin show – CMA executives decided that Winter deserves better accommodations than the former wastewater treatment plant that the city donated to CMA in 1978. After all, CMA attendance jumped to 750,000 last year, and a University of South Florida study estimated that the movie’s total financial impact on Pinellas County could range anywhere from $2.1 billion to $4.9 billion.
The CMA executives proposed building their new facility where the aging City Hall now sits, on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor with easy access to the salt water the aquarium needs to flush its tanks. But such a deal would have to be approved by Clearwater voters in a referendum, so CMA offered to pay the cost of the referendum.
Clearwater City Clerk Rosemarie Call told Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark to expect a special referendum for Nov. 5, and Akin began drafting it. That was no easy task because state law limits such a referendum to 75 words, and the one Akin presented to the City Council for tweaking contained 72 words.
The proposed amendment to the city charter was even wordier. Its six pages contained 36 clauses starting with the word “whereas.” They summarized everything from Winter’s life story to the history of CMA and the reasons for the proposed lease.
“The City Council has determined that it is in the best interests of the public to amend the City Charter to allow the lease of the city property for up to 60 years for the purpose of the construction, operation and maintenance of an aquarium as described herein,” one clause states. It does not mention how much CMA will pay the city, but it is expected that the deal will be rent-free or entail only nominal rent.
If the current plans go through, CMA’s Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure will vacate its rented space in the city-owned Harborview Center, allowing city officials to proceed with their previous plans of razing the aging structure and putting the downtown land to better use. The current CMA facility in Island Estates would be used for the rehabilitation and release of sick and injured sea creatures.
“This (referendum) is of monumental importance,” Councilmember Jay Polglaze told his colleagues.