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Clearwater Marine Aquarium has $12 million expansion plan

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium hopes to harness its moment in the spotlight with a $12 million expansion timed to the release of Hollywood's Dolphin Tale.

The aquarium is planning a SeaWorld-style dolphin stadium, an animal care center and a four-story parking garage for the crowds that officials expect will flock to the attraction after the film's wide release in September.

But the clock's ticking. Blueprints must pass through city permitting this month before construction crews could break ground this summer.

Work would take at least half a year, meaning visitors coming from the movie to see its star, Winter the dolphin, at the aquarium probably would head straight into construction.

Aquarium chief executive officer David Yates said that can't be helped. Without a parking garage, cars probably would spill into the residential streets of Island Estates, a waterfront community that lies between the mainland and Clearwater Beach.

"We want to make sure we're ready for what's coming," Yates said. "If we don't do this, there's going to be a mess out there."

Some locals expressed worry about ripple effects from the movie premiere during an Island Estates Civic Association town hall meeting Tuesday night. Several said they expect aquarium traffic to clog their neighborhood.

"Nobody asked the residents of Island Estates how they felt about this," member Arnie Shal said.

But Frank Dame, the aquarium's executive vice president, said the facility has been quick to respond to neighbors, changing its plans for parking to absorb much of the visitors' impact. Many in the crowd of 120 at the town hall meeting seemed excited about the expansion, applauding renderings of a snazzy new entryway planned for the aquarium.

"We are citizens of this community," Dame said of the aquarium. "We don't want to hurt this community."

Starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, Dolphin Tale tweaks the story of Winter, the aquarium's dolphin that learned to swim with a prosthetic tail. Local production wrapped up in December.

Once a sewage treatment plant, the waterfront aquarium has grown wildly in recent years, opening a new dolphin pool, a sea turtle rehab area and a surgical suite for injured animals. The city donated $750,000 in taxpayer funds to the private aquarium in October, hoping the expansion would lure tourists.

The construction would expand the aquarium from 40,000 to 57,000 square feet and triple its room for animal rehabilitation.

Dame said he expects 4,000 visitors a day after the movie premieres, nearly double the aquarium's record.

"The crowds are going to come," Dame said. "That's a very good problem to have."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium has $12 million expansion plan 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 8:21pm]
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