Residents pack the meeting hall at the Clearwater Sailing Center Oct. 8 to hear a debate over the new location of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
CLEARWATER – Nearly 200 people crowded into the meeting hall at the Clearwater Sailing Club on Sand Key Oct. 8 to hear both sides of the debate over the proposed location of a new Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
At issue was whether a Nov. 5 referendum will give the aquarium the go-ahead to make plans to take over the property now occupied by Clearwater City Hall and build a new facility to house Winter the dolphin and the other animals that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the aquarium every year.
The Sand Key Civic Association sponsored the event.
Frank Dame, the chief operating officer of the aquarium, told the crowd that the current location on Island Estates just isn’t able to handle what they expect would be an influx of visitors in the years to come.
“In 2006 to 2011 we had 220,000 visitors a year,” he said. “Then in 2012 after the movie. ‘A Dolphin Tale’ was released that number jumped to 750,000. This last year attendance is down a little but the fact is our current location will be at capacity at 1 million visitors and we fully expect to attract that many in the years to come.”
Dame said the plan is to build the new $160 million aquarium on the City Hall property and move Winter and the others there while keeping the current location as the rescue and rehab facility.
On the other side of the argument was Joe Corvino of the group, Friends of Clearwater. He said the debate boils down to the fact that the community can’t afford the $160 million expansion.
“This would be an investment based on star power,” he said. “In fact this is a business deal, take the emotion out of this, it is a business deal. We have to ask ourselves what the city is giving and getting in this deal.”
He said the city would be giving up 6 acres of prime waterfront property. What the city would be getting back is outlined in the aquarium’s proposal.
The CMA would pay the city $7.5 million for construction of a new city hall, and it would bear the cost of the demolition of the current city hall and build the new aquarium. The city would retain ownership of the land but would grant a 60-year lease to the CMA to operate the aquarium. The $7.5 million would come from the city getting 50-cents for each admission to the aquarium.
Dame said the CMA would use few tax dollars in its fundraising efforts.
“We’re told we qualify for federal tax credits worth about $12 million, and other federal educational grant money,” he said. “We would also qualify for money from the bed tax in Pinellas County and money from the local Community Redevelopment Area taxes.”
Dame said the Nov. 5 referendum is important because it will give potential investors the knowledge that the project is feasible and ready to go.
Corvino countered that the taxpayers of Clearwater are going to have to bear the upfront costs of the project.
“We will have to put up the $7.5 million for the new City hall, and pay for whatever road improvements are going to be necessary,” he said. “As well there is the cost of the new parking garage that will be needed.”
Corvino also noted that while the aquarium supporters say the facility will help the economy of downtown, he contends it should be the other way around.
“Urban planners say that neighborhoods have to come first and services will follow,” he said.
Corvino also cautioned that the city could be on the hook if the aquarium project fails.
“Just look at what happened in Tampa,” he said. “The Florida Aquarium failed after two years and now the city is paying $7 million a year to subsidize it.”
Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is now an executive board member of the aquarium, asked the crowd to imagine the future.
“Look what we have been able to do located in an old solid waste sewer plant,” he said. “Imagine what we’ll be able to do in a world class facility. City Hall is 47 years old and is in a bad location. We’re going to have to get a new city hall anyway.”
Answering a question submitted by a member of the audience, Hibbard speculated where a new city hall might be built.
“I have no idea what might be considered but given what I do know, there are several locations,” he said. “The city owns the land where the St. Pete Times office was, that’s one possibility. It could go on the property where the old fire station was and there are various other properties around the city which could be used.”
Hibbard also noted that if the referendum doesn’t go their way on Nov. 5 then there is a Plan B.
“We would expand the Island Estates property,” he said. “There are some properties nearby that we could purchase, but there would be added traffic on the Causeway and I’m not sure how the residents would like that.”
Hibbard said the risk to the taxpayers is minimal.
“In our memorandum of agreement it states that if we cannot raise the necessary money by August of 2016 then the deal expires,” he said.
Earlier opponent Corvino said the memorandum of agreement between the city and the aquarium was worthless and could be torn up or changed at any time.
Clichés on both sides ended the presentations with Dame drawing on some great achievements throughout history.
“They teach us that success comes in cans and not cannots,” he said.
Opponent Tom Petersen refuted the idea that the movie “Dolphin Tale,” or even the sequel “Dolphin Tale 2” will have an impact 50 or 60 years down the road.
“I don’t believe they are going to be making a new movie every year or two,” he said. “This is a pig in a poke with little substance and I ask you to vote no.”
Giving those in attendance information to take to the polls for the referendum was the goal of the Civic Association. President Arlene Musselwhite said she was pleased with the event.
“I was actually surprised with the turnout because the Rays are playing tonight,” she said. “I’m very pleased. We aren’t taking sides here; we just want people to know all the information so they can vote intelligently.”