This artist’s rendition shows what the front entrance of Clearwater Marine Aquarium might look like in the future.
CLEARWATER – Officials of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium unveiled plans Aug. 22 for a new downtown facility. Now the race is on to raise the money to pay for it.
At a news conference at the current facility, board member Frank Hibbard explained that $68 million is the total bill for the new facility, and $30 million of that must be in hand before any ground breaking can take place.
Originally, when the plans for the new aquarium were announced, the price tag was set at $130 million dollars. That was soon re-estimated downward to $100 million, and now the final $68 million.
“We realized we had to get the price down,” Hibbard said. “Among the ways we did that was to put 50,000 square feet of display space outside, not under the roof, and to eliminate the dolphin stadium.”
In fact, the new facility, which will be built on the site of the present Clearwater City Hall, will lean more on education rather than entertainment.
CEO David Yates stressed that the mission of the aquarium is not to be entertainment-centric.
“Our mission is the three R’s,” he said. “Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release. With that in mind, the new facility will be unique, like nothing that exists anywhere in the world.”
He said the new aquarium would have more room for both the animals and people.
“There will be no seats and no big shows,” he said. “It will be designed so visitors can see how we go about the day-to-day operation. We’re moving the care and rehabilitation of the animals from the back to the front so everyone can see.”
The new facility will have a large, open area for visitors, who will be greeted by volunteers. Then they will be shown the stingray touch tank, the turtle tanks and the otter display, which includes a clear plastic tube into which children can crawl and get up close to the animals.
Hibbard explained that even the hospital work and examinations would be conducted out in the open for anyone to see.
“There will even be the pumps and filters in plain view so people can see what it takes to operate the facility,” he said.
He then showed renderings of the new Community Room, which is in fact a place for people to buy refreshments or hold functions such as weddings. From that room, a guest can look down upon the dolphin habitat and a two-story coral reef.
In addition, children can get on a computer and go through the same checklist the staff uses to determine is an animal is ready to be released back into the wild. Children can also participate in a mock dolphin rescue.
The news conference on Aug. 22 came just over two weeks before the release of the movie Dolphin Tale 2. The initial movie about Winter the dolphin who lost her tail put the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the map. It went from a rehab facility established in 1972 for injured or sick marine animals to a multi-million dollar revenue source as millions of visitors lined up to see Winter in her permanent home in the aquarium.
The sequel will feature another rescued dolphin, Hope. The cast of the movie is essentially the same as in the first one: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.
The aquarium officials are counting on the movie to spur on donations for the new facility.
“It is no coincidence that we are unveiling our plans just two and a half weeks before the release of the movie,” said Yates. “We are confident that we have done our groundwork with potential donors, we’re not starting cold.”
Hibbard explained that before they could move full on into fundraising, they had to have the final numbers and the renderings of the new facility so potential donors will know what they are paying for. Those are the private donors.
Hibbard said the public money is critical to the success of the project.
“We’re looking for up to $30 million from the Tourist Development Council at the county level,” Hibbard said. “We’re also exploring what we can get from the city. The people there understand what we are trying to do and what sort of economic impact it will have on the downtown.”
Hibbard made it clear that without the public fundraising in place, the project could fail.
“If that happens, then we will stay here. We’ll expand this facility. We are not going to let the program die,” he said. “But of course, we’re confident that everything is going ahead and will be successful.”
If that happens, then the current facility will be turned into an expanded hospital, said Yates. He said part of that expansion in the old facility will be to explore how to use the waters of Clearwater Bay right at the back door of the aquarium.
As for when this will all happen, Hibbard said there are deadlines.
“We hope to break ground by August of 2016,” he said. “We have to have all the fundraising done and the money in by February of 2016. We have to give the city six months’ notice that we’re going to take over the city hall building.”
Aquarium officials are confident the fundraising campaign will be successful because of the company they have hired to carry out that fundraising, the same company that raised the funds for the successful Obama presidential campaign.