CLEARWATER — They called it Project Starfish.
That was the code name for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's secret plan to build a new $160 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium in downtown Clearwater on the site now occupied by City Hall. As aquarium officials developed their plan behind the scenes, they ordered conceptual drawings of the new building with the fake name "Starfish Aquarium."
The inside joke: With Winter the dolphin, the aquarium has a fish that's a star. (Okay, a marine mammal that's a star.)
On Thursday, aquarium officials made their plan public. They will present it to the City Council this week, along with a request that the council approve a referendum for November. Voter approval is required for the aquarium to be able to lease the City Hall land.
As Clearwater decides whether to hand over the waterfront City Hall property to the aquarium, there are a number of aspects to the deal that officials and the public will have to consider.
The aquarium will ask the city for a no-cost lease for the City Hall property for perhaps 60 years. In exchange, the aquarium promises to bring millions of visitors to Clearwater's moribund downtown, helping it to thrive. But do its projections hold up?
Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, and the small Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Island Estates were featured in the hit film Dolphin Tale. The movie came out in late 2011. Last year, the aquarium and its new, separate movie prop exhibit in the downtown Harborview Center drew about 750,000 visitors combined. That's a huge spike in attendance compared to 220,000 visitors to the aquarium the previous year.
However, aquarium officials predict that a new facility on the Clearwater Harbor bluff would attract a whopping 2.5 million visitors in its first year, decreasing slightly in the following years. This would be another big jump in attendance. The aquarium calls this estimate "conservative," although at first glance it might seem wildly optimistic.
Aquarium CEO David Yates said they based this forecast on the first-year attendance figures for several other new aquariums that have opened around the country. Officials also think a new state-of-the-art attraction built around Winter's inspiring story of survival, paired with the white sands of Clearwater Beach, would persuade a lot of Orlando tourists to add a trip to Clearwater to their itinerary.
"Build it and they will come. A large 'wow factor' facility brings people. That's a proven fact," Yates said. "It should be very doable."
Aquarium officials have whipped up an optional proposal for new amenities at Coachman Park, city-owned green space along the downtown waterfront north of the City Hall site. But that conceptual proposal would not be part of the referendum.
Those changes would include razing the old Harborview Center and its big parking lot, allowing for the creation of a larger green lawn. Where the Harborview stands now at the top of the bluff, there could be interactive fountains for children to play in. The park's green space would be expanded to bump up against the aquarium's outdoor exhibits just to the south.
Why did aquarium officials include park redesign ideas in their aquarium presentation?
"I think you have to sell a vision as to what the entire waterfront could look like, in addition to the aquarium," said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is on the aquarium's board of directors and chairs its "Starfish Committee."
In 2011, aquarium officials opened their movie-prop exhibit, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, in the city's empty Harborview Center, which once housed a Stein Mart along with space for trade shows and events.
The exhibit was created to relieve pressure from the current aquarium on Island Estates, a small facility straining to handle the big crowds since Dolphin Tale.
City officials have long talked of demolishing the Harborview Center, and the aquarium's lease of the building runs out in a year.
Aquarium officials will ask the city to keep the Harborview standing until 2017, when the new aquarium would be finished, said Frank Dame, the aquarium's executive vice president. Then the Dolphin Tale exhibit would be folded into the new location.
Why a referendum?
Why relocate to the City Hall site anyway, especially since it requires a referendum and would force City Hall offices to move?
Aquarium officials say they can't expand any more at their current site on Island Estates.
They looked at other spots downtown. But the city-owned Prospect Lake site is too far from the salt water that the aquarium needs. Moving to Coachman Park west of the Clearwater Main Library would be hugely unpopular and would block the library's waterfront views.
Moving to the mostly empty block just east of the Main Library would deprive downtown of its best remaining site for another high-rise development, Hibbard said. And he added that the Harborview Center site is politically "radioactive."
That's because Clearwater voters have repeatedly shown that they're leery of development on the public waterfront, particularly in Coachman Park.
In 2000, voters decisively rejected a huge $200 million plan in which developers would have built shops, restaurants, a hotel, movie theater, apartments and public improvements downtown in exchange for leasing 5 acres of public land, including the Harborview site and City Hall site, for up to 99 years at $1 per year.
In 2004, voters torpedoed a less ambitious plan to build a marina and amphitheater at Coachman Park. Finally, in 2007, they approved the construction of a $12.8 million marina next to the park.
This year, Clearwater voters will likely be asked to lease the City Hall site to the aquarium at no cost. They will have to decide if the trade-off is worth it.
"The decision has to be considered in the context of the substantial advantages to our community in tax revenues and the intrinsic value of the aquarium," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson, probably the most fiscally conservative City Council member. "The creation of an aquarium in downtown Clearwater will, in one fell swoop, solve our business issues downtown.
"This is probably the most significant announcement since the Tampa Bay Rays. What even comes close?"
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.