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Gov. Rick Scott talks tourism and dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Friday. Earlier, a dolphin named Nicholas splashed his staff. 

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Friday. Earlier, a dolphin named Nicholas splashed his staff. 

CLEARWATER — For Gov. Rick Scott and his entourage, it was supposed to be a casual tour through the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Friday, a chance to dry off after touring flood damage in Pasco County.

But apparently, no one told Nicholas the dolphin. While Scott and his wife, Ann, stood poolside, the dolphin unexpectedly flipped and splashed in his tank, drenching several members of Scott's suited staff.

It was a funny way to show gratitude. Minutes later, near the tank for Winter, the aquarium's movie-star dolphin, Scott signed a bill that could steer more tax money to the booming aquarium.

The legislation, HB 1015, lets nonprofit public aquariums get a cut of the 5 percent tax on hotel stays paid by tourists in their counties. Public sports arenas, convention centers and museums already share in the tax revenue, which last year in Pinellas County totaled $25 million.

The bill was championed by state Rep. Ed Hooper and state Sen. Jack Latvala, both Clearwater-based Republicans at Scott's side during the signing. It takes effect Sunday, but it could be years before the aquarium earns any of the bed-tax funding because the money is committed to other projects for the foreseeable future.

Featured in the movie Dolphin Tale, Hollywood's take on Winter's real-life story of learning to swim with a prosthetic tail, the Clearwater aquarium is believed to have played a big role in making March the highest-grossing month in history for Pinellas tourism.

Average attendance at the aquarium has quadrupled since Dolphin Tale's September release, and that tourism spending is rippling quickly outward, said aquarium chief executive officer David Yates.

An unreleased University of South Florida study, Yates said, estimated that Dolphin Tale would have a local economic impact of $2 billion in the five years after its premiere.

On Friday, the governor called Winter's underdog tale of survival a "great story," adding, "These are the types of stories you want."

During Scott's visit, the aquarium also hosted a roundtable discussion on tourism, with representatives from local resorts, commercial fisheries and other beach businesses talking up the strengths and challenges of building local tourism.

Part of that, Scott said, involves getting the word out that the state is open for business now that Tropical Storm Debby has departed.

"The beach is open," Scott said. "The sunshine's back. The state is well."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor to tampabay.com/letters.

Gov. Rick Scott talks tourism and dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium 06/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 7:50pm]
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