CLEARWATER — The Great Aquarium War of 2013 has been called off.
Aquarium leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay have declared a truce. They're singing Kumbaya and talking about working together.
This is a marked change from last month, when Clearwater Marine Aquarium leaders first announced their ambitious plans to build a world-class facility in downtown Clearwater.
Across the bay, leaders of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa raised their eyebrows at the plan. "We just don't see this venture being economically feasible," Florida Aquarium CEO Thom Stork said at the time.
The chairman of the Tampa aquarium's board even drove over to a Clearwater City Council meeting to cast doubt on the Clearwater aquarium's plans and attendance forecasts. Clearwater leaders questioned why he was there.
But that was then and this is now. These days, the two aquariums have started brainstorming ways to collaborate on marketing and branding.
They're also thinking about offering a discounted ticket package that would give visitors access to both aquariums plus a third one, St. Petersburg's Pier Aquarium, which is relocating later this year to expanded quarters at John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach and will have a new name, Secrets of the Sea.
"We could market the Tampa Bay region as the aquarium capital of the world," said David Yates, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's CEO. "We'll have three major aquariums, all with different experiences.
"If you look at it as too many aquariums in the area, that's the glass-half-empty perspective," added the ever-optimistic Yates. "The glass-half-full perspective is we have an opportunity to grow the market and expand the tourism base. Rather than saying we have to share the pie, we grow the pie."
It remains to be seen how effective such a strategy would be, but the aquariums may have little choice but to work together. If the Clearwater group is able to follow through on its plans, the Tampa Bay region may soon be testing the limits of how many major aquariums one tourism destination can support.
"My entire career, I've believed strongly in critical mass — bringing more people to a marketplace," said Stork, the Tampa aquarium's CEO. "If there is a program we can put together — a ticket of that type, a brand of that type — then let's try it and see. Why not?"
All three aquariums have major plans.
Clearwater: Bolstered by the fame of Winter the dolphin, the star of the movie Dolphin Tale, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has outgrown its current location near Clearwater Beach. It wants to build a substantially larger, $160 million facility in downtown Clearwater with a dolphin stadium, a two-story coral reef tank and a theme-park-style theater. However, that will require significant fundraising and a voter referendum.
Tampa: The Florida Aquarium is embarking on its first physical expansion in its 17-year history. Through its $15 million Rising Tides capital campaign, it will soon break ground on a new conference facility and new stingray touch tank, to be followed by five new classrooms, a changing exhibit hall and a ballroom for events.
John's Pass Village: The Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium is looking at a fall or winter opening in its new digs — 12,500 square feet on two levels of a parking garage building located next to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Hooters, busy restaurants on the John's Pass boardwalk. Plans call for 40 exhibits about the sea and the creatures that live in it.
"We have started discussions on what a co-op ticket program might look like between our institutions," said the aquarium's director, Howard Rutherford.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.