The Florida Aquarium plans to parlay a $2.5 million gift into a 50,000 square foot addition complete with more classrooms, more meeting space and more room for animal exhibits.
The aquarium announced the gift from Mosaic Co., the phosphate mining and fertilizer giant, on Thursday as it launched a fundraising drive it hopes will raise $15 million to pay for the addition.
The aquarium already has $6 million in committed donations for the project — called Rising Tide — that would increase the size of the complex by 20 percent.
The new two-story wing would jut off the aquarium's southeast corner just east of the cantina and kids wet play area. The project also includes a new entry and bigger lobby.
Work starts next year and is to be completed in three phases from 2013 to 2016 as money rolls in. The aquarium is stepping up its fundraising schedule with events ranging from wine and food tastings to a chef's tour offering sustainable seafood education.
Most of the new space has a business purpose. The 7,000 square feet of space set aside for temporary exhibits every six months to a year will give locals a reason to make a return trip. Increasing the number of classrooms from two to five will help double the 100,000 kids and 9,000 teachers whose schools pay for marine science instruction annually. The meeting space will help attract more rent-paying conferences, events and weddings.
While the aquarium now routinely is rented for catered receptions that draw 2,000 people or more, the facility can serve sit-down meals to only 150 guests. The addition would up that total to 600.
"People today want us to have larger animals like sea lions and dolphins and we do, too,'" said Thom Stork, aquarium chief executive. "But to get there we have to generate revenues."
While annual attendance of 700,000 has been improving thanks to the recovery of Florida tourism this year, the facility remains reliant on government help. The city of Tampa has been paying the construction debt for most of the 16 years it has been open. A taxpayer-backed operating subsidy has been whittled from $1.5 million to $400,000 this year, which is used to help balance a $15.1 million budget.
The contribution from Mosaic, which will have its name on the new addition, is the largest gift in the aquarium's history. Mosaic, based in Plymouth, Minn., with 3,200 employees in five counties surrounding Tampa Bay, has long been one of the aquarium's major sponsors. It donates one of its ocean-going barges to deliver 1.5 million gallons of gulf saltwater to the aquarium tanks annually in 300,000 gallon loads.
"This really shows we are serious about believing in the aquarium's mission and committed to environmental sustainability and stewardship," said Bo Davis, Mosaic senior vice president for Florida and Louisiana.
"It's a great fit," said Steve Seibert, a Largo High School graduate and one-time Florida secretary of community affairs who sits on the Mosaic corporate board. "It's in a community that matters to us as does the aquarium's environmental mission."
The $90 million aquarium opened in 1995 in a barren and forlorn stretch of the Port of Tampa. But it served as a trailblazing development catalyst that led to the Marriott Waterside Hotel, St. Pete Times Forum, a bustling cruise port and construction of more than 6,000 condo and rental apartment units.
"When we first got here only 600 people lived in the neighborhood, and most of them resided in the county jail," joked Tom Hall, a Tampa public relations executive who chairs the aquarium board. "Some people will think we're crazy starting a major fundraising campaign in this economy, but this is the best time."
Added Mayor Bob Buckhorn who has eyed the same neighborhood as someday housing a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays: "This is the beginning of the next chapter in Tampa's history. We need to raise the bar, raise the money and get this done, because we aspire to be a great American city, not a mediocre one."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.