Tampa Electric an-nounced plans Thursday to partner with the Florida Aquarium and the state to create a conservation and technology park in Apollo Beach.
The park, which will be located near Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center, will serve as a center for recreation, learning, conservation, research and technology.
Parking and admission to the park will be free when the facility opens in three to five years.
Tampa Electric, a subsidiary of TECO Energy, and the Florida Aquarium formed a partnership for the project with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to offer the park to the public.
"It is an honor to be a part of this amazing project," said Thom Stork, president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium. "This innovative park will not only assist us in the day-to-day operations of the aquarium, but will help expand our marine life education, rescue and research footprint throughout our community and the state."
The site is home to TECO Energy's Big Bend power station. The warm waters of the discharge canal there attract hundreds of manatees when the temperature in Tampa Bay falls below 68 degrees.
Since 1986, more than 3 million visitors have walked the butterfly gardens, viewed a hurricane simulator and watched the manatees.
The expanded park will feature outdoor public exhibits that show state-of-the-art energy technologies. The Center for Conservation will educate the public about the connections between the state's waters, plants and fishes.
The park also will offer camps, an educational facility and an animal rescue, research and holding facility.
The park will offer a place for the aquarium to prepare animals for exhibits and grow food for the animals, as well as to display new energy technologies for the public to witness.
The park is in the conceptual stages and TECO did not provide an estimated cost of the project. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is contributing $2 million to create a youth conservation center at the site. It would offer a hub for such activities as canoeing, kayaking and hiking in the area.
"The key is to get more kids outdoors," explained Chris Wynn, the wildlife agency's regional director.
In addition, the wildlife agency will — slowly — move its fish hatchery from Port Manatee to the Apollo Beach site, according to Gil McRae, director of the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
Port Manatee needs the land for its expansion plans, so the state needs a new home for its spawning redfish and spotted sea trout.
Ivan Penn can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332.