Thursday, December 14, 2017
Business

Clearwater considers whether aquarium will go on public waterfront land

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.

Huge numbers

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."

Coachman Park

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."

Harborview Center

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 [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

 
Comments
Pack your bags: 107.3M Americans to set holiday traveling record

Pack your bags: 107.3M Americans to set holiday traveling record

A record-breaking number of Americans are expected to travel this holiday season.The American Automobile Association projects that 107.3 million Americans will pack their bags and travel more than 50 miles by planes, trains, automobiles and other mod...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Local widowers say baby powder caused their wives’ cancer

Local widowers say baby powder caused their wives’ cancer

Two Tampa area widowers whose wives died of ovarian cancer are suing Johnson & Johnson, joining nearly 5,000 other plaintiffs across the country who blame their illness on the daily use of the pharmaceutical company’s talcum powder.Bryan Isa’s wife, ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Jabil’s fiscal results top Wall Street expectations

Jabil’s fiscal results top Wall Street expectations

ST. PETERSBURG — Jabil Circuit Inc. beat Wall Street expectations for both profits and revenue Thursday.The St. Petersburg-based contract electronics manufacturer — one of Tampa Bay’s biggest public companies — posted fiscal first-quarter earnings of...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Soccer store opens on Gunn Highway, just in time for the World Cup

Soccer store opens on Gunn Highway, just in time for the World Cup

Even though the United States Men’s soccer team didn’t qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, that hasn’t diminished local fans’ excitement about the upcoming international event.Ariel Martinez, owner of Best Buy Soccer and Lacrosse, has already receiv...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Tampa chamber names first companies for minority business accelerator

Tampa chamber names first companies for minority business accelerator

TAMPA — Four firms in marketing, construction and secure cash logistics will be the first to go to through a new Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce program designed to help black- and Hispanic-owned companies grow their businesses through two years of...
Updated: 9 hours ago
FCC votes down Obama-era ‘net neutrality’ rules

FCC votes down Obama-era ‘net neutrality’ rules

NEW YORK — The Federal Communications Commission has voted on party lines to undo sweeping Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that guaranteed equal access to internet.The agency’s Democratic commissioners dissented in the 3-2 vote Thursday.The FCC’s ne...
Updated: 11 hours ago
From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

From Crystal River to Brooksville, branch out to shop on these unexpected main streets

You don’t have to stare at a greeting card to picture a bustling old main street lined with decorated shops and lampposts. Historic small-town shopping districts are easy to find, and more charming than Walmart. Beyond the downtowns of St. Pet...
Updated: 11 hours ago
American Social booming on Harbour Island

American Social booming on Harbour Island

HARBOUR ISLAND — Downtowners, conventioneers, hockey fans, concert-goers and anyone hungry for waterfront dining are discovering American Social Bar & Kitchen on Harbour Island. Panoramic views, accessible boat slips and walkability to Amalie Arena a...
Updated: 12 hours ago
A healthy dining option opens in Downtown Tampa

A healthy dining option opens in Downtown Tampa

SOUTH TAMPA— Vale Food Co., a health food restaurant, hopes to make its mark on the bay area foodie scene with the opening of its first location in Tampa.In 2014, Sunny Ilyas was a Florida State student trying to find an affordable, healthy meal for ...
Published: 12/14/17

Tampa Bay is above average in minority homeownership

Tampa Bay ranks 22nd among the nation’s 45 largest metro areas in the percentage of minority homeowners. According to Abodo, an online apartment marketplace, 46.2 percent of minorities in the bay area own their homes, which have an average value of $...
Published: 12/14/17