CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of the most famous dolphin since Flipper, is about to launch an ambitious plan to build a new $160 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium in downtown Clearwater.
The substantially larger home for Winter, the 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.
The new aquarium would include a 2,000-seat dolphin stadium, a two-story coral reef tank and a "4D theater" where viewers would get misted with water or feel the breeze of a sea environment. It would provide space for the hordes of visitors who have flocked to the current location since Winter starred in the hit 2011 movie Dolphin Tale.
The small aquarium on Island Estates near Clearwater Beach would remain open, but would be devoted to animal rescue and rehabilitation. It would be renamed the Clearwater Marine Hospital, after the film's fictional backdrop.
Aquarium officials will ask the city for a no-cost lease to the City Hall property. In exchange for getting the waterfront land, the aquarium forecasts that it would draw exponentially more tourists to Clearwater's struggling downtown, which is best known for the presence of the Church of Scientology.
Aquarium officials predict that a new facility would attract over 2 million visitors in its first year.
"With 2 million visitors a year, you change the entire complexion of downtown," said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is on the aquarium's board of directors. "This is the right thing at the right place at the right time."
Because City Hall is on public land, the deal would require the approval of Clearwater voters. The aquarium will ask the city to hold a referendum this November, with the aquarium paying the $70,000 cost.
"I think that's a fair request. Let's see what the public believes should happen," said current Mayor George Cretekos. "It's a massive project. It's a potential game changer for downtown."
The aquarium will publicly present its plan to Clearwater's City Council on Tuesday. Council members have been briefed one-on-one and are generally supportive of holding a referendum.
So if the aquarium moved, what would happen to City Hall? The three-story building at 112 S Osceola Ave. houses offices of city administrators, clerks and attorneys as well as the City Council meeting chamber. The 1960s-era building isn't aging well. Eight years ago, the city was prepared to sell the property to a condo developer. Officials have previously debated closing City Hall to save money and moving its functions into newer city buildings such as the Clearwater Main Library and the Municipal Services Building a few blocks away.
Clearwater has also considered building a new City Hall, and it owns several large tracts downtown. "We'll start looking at our options," City Manager Bill Horne said.
The aquarium has hired the company that designed the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the world's largest, to design the new facility. Conceptual drawings show the building fronting downtown's Osceola Avenue and stair-stepping down the high bluff to a covered dolphin stadium near the water.
Drawings also show turtle tanks; exhibits for otters, octopuses and possibly manatees; a 9,000-square-foot community meeting room; an outdoor Everglades exhibit; a cafe; and a 630-space parking garage on a 1-acre vacant lot just south of City Hall that the aquarium bought in December for $2.1 million.
A Dolphin Tale movie prop exhibit currently housed in the city's Harborview Center would be folded into the new location, said Frank Dame, the aquarium's executive vice president.
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Is it prudent to bet this big on a dolphin?
Winter is 7 years old, and dolphins can live for 50 years, Dame said.
David Yates, the aquarium's CEO, says Dolphin Tale draws visitors to Winter's home because the film is so closely tied to a real location. The name "Clearwater" is mentioned or shown several times in the movie.
One might assume that tourism generated by the film would begin to drop off after the movie left theaters. But Yates says it will have a long "afterlife" on DVDs, HBO, and later on the ABC Family network, ensuring that families will have many chances to be exposed to Winter's story. Several books also have been written about Winter. Wounded veterans and disabled children have also turned Winter's home into a place of inspiration.
Opened in the 1970s in what was once a sewage treatment plant, the current small aquarium has at times struggled to handle the overflow crowds generated by Dolphin Tale. The aquarium was 52,000 square feet before current construction projects that will expand it to 83,000.
Attendance has roughly quadrupled since the movie's release, with about 750,000 visitors last year to the aquarium and its movie prop exhibit. That's more than the Florida Aquarium, which reported 650,000 visitors last year.
Clearwater officials expressed confidence that Clearwater's aquarium could survive competition from Tampa's aquarium because Clearwater's aquarium will draw beach visitors and because it has a bonafide star in Winter. Florida Aquarium officials had no comment Thursday.
To help make its vision a reality, the Clearwater aquarium has hired a fundraising consultant. It will need to raise millions from donors and corporations, as well as from the city, county, state and federal governments.
To cover the $160 million cost, the aquarium also anticipates spending $15 to $20 million from its own bank account, and getting $60 to $80 million through bank financing.
If a referendum passes and sufficient money is raised, construction on the new facility would begin in spring 2015 and finish in spring 2017, Dame said.
Getting the deal approved in a voter referendum is no guarantee. In 2000, Clearwater voters rejected a $200 million plan that would have transformed the downtown waterfront. They rejected a less ambitious proposal in 2004. But in 2007, they approved the construction of a downtown marina.
The two earlier referendums got resounding "no" votes because voters feared impacts to city-owned Coachman Park, a sprawling green space that is home to the annual Clearwater Jazz Holiday and is considered premium waterfront property. It remains to be seen if the City Hall site would engender similar opposition.
The presentation that aquarium officials will make to the City Council shows an optional proposal for changes at Coachman Park, but that will not be a part of the referendum and officials said they offered it just to demonstrate how the downtown waterfront could be redesigned.
Clearwater Beach activist Anne Garris, who helped torpedo two of the previous downtown referendums, said Thursday that she's mostly concerned that no buildings be added to Coachman Park. The park concept doesn't call for that. An aquarium supporter, Garris nevertheless wonders how much the plan would cost taxpayers.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.