CLEARWATER — Clearwater leaders voted unanimously Wednesday night to move forward on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's ambitious plans to build a new, world-class aquarium in downtown Clearwater.
But the vote came after a testy exchange between Clearwater's mayor and the chairman of the board of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa — signaling that there could be a cross-bay rivalry between the two attractions.
The $160 million, 200,000-square-foot home for Winter, the movie-star dolphin that learned to swim with a prosthetic tail, would be built on a city-owned site where Clearwater's City Hall is located, overlooking Clearwater Harbor.
Proponents believe it would be a major attraction that would bring more tourists to the Tampa Bay area and could potentially transform Clearwater's moribund downtown. Others wonder if those predictions will hold up.
The contrast was in evidence at Wednesday night's meeting of the Clearwater City Council.
One after another, about 20 Clearwater residents came before the council to sing the praises of the plan. It was exciting, a game changer, an idea whose time had come, they said.
Then Doug Montgomery, the chairman of the board for the Florida Aquarium, stepped up to the podium to throw cold water on the plan. Based on the Tampa aquarium's tough experiences, he doubted the Clearwater aquarium's prediction of 2.5 million visitors in its new facility's first year. When Tampa's aquarium opened in 1995, it expected 1.8 million visitors but never reached 1 million.
"It's deja vu all over again," Montgomery said. "We've been there, we've done that."
Then the mayor shut him down. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said they were there to discuss holding a referendum on the plan in November. Voter approval is required because the aquarium hopes to lease the site of City Hall for its new location.
"With all due respect, sir, I would ask you to stick to that same subject," Cretekos said. The specific numbers in the proposal would be reviewed as the aquarium and the city hash out a business plan in the coming months, he said.
Montgomery went away baffled he wasn't allowed to continue.
Restaurateur Frank Chivas, a longtime member of the Clearwater aquarium's board, told the council: "We've gotten the attention of the Tampa aquarium. They're really nervous when they send their chairman here." He drew a round of applause from the crowd of about 100 in the council chamber.
The City Council voted to move forward with a city referendum on Nov. 5. The council will vote on the final ballot language later this year. Sometime this year, officials will also vote on a business plan, a "memorandum of understanding" detailing the specifics of how the aquarium would take over the City Hall site.
In separate interviews Wednesday night, leaders of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium stressed that they're prepared to answer any questions or criticisms of their plan. It wouldn't have mattered to them if Montgomery had been allowed to continue speaking.
"There's nothing they're going to say that we haven't heard before. We know the history very well," said aquarium CEO David Yates. "There are major differences between the Florida Aquarium and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Any struggles they had in the past don't translate to us."
Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who's also on the aquarium's board of directors, added that aquarium officials are prepared to meet with Clearwater neighborhood and community groups to go over the plan in detail.
"We're ready and willing to answer any questions," he said. He also questioned why an official from the Florida Aquarium showed up to speak at a public meeting without first seeking a private meeting with officials from the Clearwater aquarium or the city of Clearwater.
"Nobody has ever called to say, 'We can give you some advice from lessons learned,' " Hibbard said.
Yates defends the aquarium's prediction of 2.5 million visitors in the new facility's first year. Aquarium officials believe an attraction near the beach, combined with the internationally known story of Winter, could draw tourist families who are vacationing in Orlando.
After the release of the movie Dolphin Tale, starring Winter, the current small aquarium on Island Estates near Clearwater Beach drew about 750,000 visitors last year, compared to 200,000 the year before.
Yates said that according to the aquarium's analysis, the proposed new facility would break even if it attracted 950,000 visitors a year.