TAMPA — The Florida Aquarium was expecting a $1 million donation Monday, but came away with more than double that after two anonymous donors pitched in atop a gift from Publix's founding family.
This money puts the aquarium halfway toward its Rising Tides Campaign fundraising goal of $15 million, said foundation chairman Tom Hall.
"We're going to build a learning center, with their support, that will rival any other marine science program in the United States," Hall said to a small crowd gathered Monday afternoon.
As sand tiger sharks circled above his head in the aquarium's largest tank, Hall explained the organization's ultimate plan: a learning center with five classrooms and a staging area — which would double the aquarium's capacity for marine science classes and equip teachers to conduct long-distance learning with children from around the country — and a renovated front entrance and lobby.
This expansion would be the first in 17 years for the aquarium, located in the Channel District.
Barney Barnett, vice chairman of Publix, and Carol Barnett, head of Publix Charities whose father founded Publix, joined Hall, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and aquarium CEO Thom Stork in presenting a symbolic check to the facility Monday afternoon.
"When the world is watching us this August" during the Republican National Convention, Buckhorn said, "one of the iconic pictures that the world will see — not just in Indiana, but in India — will be of the Florida Aquarium."
Carol Barnett said contributing to the aquarium's growth and providing children an opportunity to explore their love of the sea was like fulfilling a dream from her youth.
"I've always had this sort of fascination with the ocean," said Barnett, wearing a sea-star necklace and coral patterned sweater. "It's not like space — you can't put your arms around outer space. But with the ocean, you can reach out and grab it. It's real. It's enchanting."
The two anonymous donors were inspired by the Barnetts' generosity, prompting one to give $1 million and the other to donate $500,000.
Last year, the Mosaic Co. donated $2.5 million to the campaign, the largest single donation in the aquarium's history.
The aquarium said it will break ground on the expansion in September, with subsequent construction projects taking place over a four-year period.
Marissa Lang can be reached at mlan[email protected] or (813) 226-3386.