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Clearwater Marine Aquarium trumpets study showing proposal is feasible

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium now has some expert opinion to bolster its campaign to raise cash for a new aquarium: a feasibility study that predicts the new facility will make a profit every year of its first decade.

AECOM, a global consulting firm, found that the proposed $160.5 million, 203,000-square-foot waterfront aquarium, which critics have called a pie-in-the-sky plan, would have an average annual cash flow of about $6 million.

The consultants also predicted that the proposed aquarium would draw first-year attendance of about 1.4 million, later settling to about 1.2 million visitors per year.

"We are very confident," said aquarium CEO David Yates.

The study was unveiled Friday at the aging, crowded former wastewater treatment plant that currently houses Winter the dolphin and the aquarium's other rescued marine life.

AECOM recommended no downsizing of the plan for the expansive new aquarium downtown, and Yates said the facility wouldn't downsize by a single square foot.

The study emphasized the unique market niche occupied by the aquarium because of the global success of the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale and a sequel that just wrapped filming in January.

"We're the exception in the industry," Yates said.

AECOM pored over attendance projections, the proposed size of the facility, tourism and residential demographics and ticket prices. The study compared the Clearwater plan with other aquariums, including the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.

The consultant was conservative, Yates said, especially on attendance. He said a study done before the Florida Aquarium in Tampa opened gave estimates that proved too high.

Florida Aquarium CEO Thom Stork thinks AECOM's estimates for Clearwater also may be too high.

"We . . . feel the attendance forecasts are aggressive considering this market already has multiple tourist attractions as well as an established aquarium that is comparable in size and scope," he wrote in a statement.

Stork wished his Clearwater competitor well and said his aquarium will remain focused on its own growth and improvement.

The AECOM study was reviewed by the Clearwater aquarium's financial adviser, Raymond James.

"I'm personally thrilled," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who led the campaign for voter approval of the new aquarium. "And Raymond James is thrilled."

Among the factors AECOM assessed was the potential competition from other area tourist destinations. Potential visitors from Orlando and Disney World weren't included in the calculations because the consultants felt day-trippers likely wouldn't make the drive to Clearwater.

But Hibbard said the aquarium had "anecdotal evidence" that tourists are coming from Disney World.

"Consider it gravy," Hibbard said the consultants told the aquarium about any Orlando effect.

AECOM did predict a substantially lower annual attendance number than the 2 million to 2.5 million visitors that the aquarium had predicted before last year's referendum. Voters authorized the city to begin negotiations on leasing the downtown waterfront property where Clearwater's City Hall now stands to the aquarium for 60 years.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos called the study "encouraging."

"The bottom line is that the aquarium is not going to be a losing proposition," he said.

Profits from the new aquarium will be used to strengthen animal care and rescue services at the nonprofit, Yates said.

Yates also revealed Friday that the aquarium is in negotiations for a television show and that a third Dolphin Tale movie may be made. The first Dolphin Tale told the story of the rescue and rehabilitation of Winter, the aquarium's star dolphin, who learned to swim with a prosthetic tail.

AECOM found that the $160.5 million projected price tag fell "generally in line with industry standards," but aquarium officials are trimming costs as they tweak the final design, Yates said. The aquarium plans to ask for money from corporations, wealthy individuals and government, and seek a share of the Pinellas County hotel bed tax.

Aquarium officials released only the 21-page executive summary of the feasibility study. The complete study won't be released, Yates said, because it contains "trade secrets."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium trumpets study showing proposal is feasible 03/07/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2014 11:38pm]
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