CLEARWATER – When Mayor George Cretekos said at the Aug. 12 Clearwater City Council work session that he might vote against a proposed 60-year lease of the current City Hall site to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for the location of its new $160.5 million facility, aquarium officials scrambled to up the ante.
By the following day, they had issued a revised memorandum of understanding that put more money in the city’s coffers, and on Aug. 13 the city council unanimously approved the revised document.
Buoyed by the success of the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale,” which starred CMA resident Winter the tailless dolphin and grossed $82 million worldwide, aquarium officials started talking about moving out of their present location in a converted sewage treatment plant in Island Estates. The momentum picked up when CMA attendance reached 750,000 last year, and the “Dolphin Tale” producers recently announced that they are going to film a sequel next year, using the original cast.
Under both versions of the memo, the current City Hall building, built in 1966, would be razed at CMA’s expense, although the city would pay for asbestos mitigation. CMA would then build a new $160.5 million aquarium on the site.
Under the old proposal, CMA would pay the city $7.5 million to build a new City Hall by giving the city 50 cents from a surcharge on every ticket sold, but it would not pay interest on the unpaid balance during the estimated 15 years it would take to pay off the entire $7.5 million. Under the new proposal, interest would be paid at a rate equal to five-year U.S. Treasury bonds.
After the $7.5 million has been paid off, the old proposal called for annual rent of $150,000. The new proposal raised that figure to $250,000.
“If we can’t make this happen, it will be the biggest missed opportunity in the 100-year history of this city,” CMA spokesman Brian Aungst told the council.
But some residents who spoke at the podium had reservations. One worried that inflation would make the 50-cent per ticket a pittance in future years. Another feared that people’s taste in entertainment might change over the next 60 years and the aquarium would become a white elephant. A third said that putting a major tourist attraction in that location would create a “bottleneck” for beach-bound traffic.
“Transformative projects are never easy,” Hibbard admitted. “But they are worth it.”
“This opportunity is unbelievable,” local CPA, attorney and CMA volunteer Linda Griffin told the council. “This is an opportunity we cannot ignore.”
“Clearwater Marine Aquarium has not only put itself on the map,” CMA volunteer Karen Altieri said. “It has put Clearwater on the worldwide map.”
But the proponents’ words were like preaching to the choir. The councilmembers had already been sold on the idea of supporting the revised memorandum of understanding.
“If I thought the numbers in the deal didn’t make sense, I’d oppose it,” Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said, adding that the new aquarium is expected to create 175 new full-time jobs and 225 part-time jobs, as well as filling existing hotels. “This is a powerful tool, not just for Clearwater but for the entire area.”
“This is an amazing opportunity,” Councilmember Doreen Hock-DiPolito agreed. “There is a bigger picture here than just the Clearwater Marine Aquarium,”
But it isn’t a done deal yet. There are two ways that the agreement could still fail: the voters could turn it down on Nov. 5 or CMA could fail to raise the construction funds by the Aug. 1, 2016 deadline.