ST. PETERSBURG — Sorry St. Petersburg, the Pier Aquarium has deeper waters to plumb.
Faced with dramatically declining attendance, an uncertain future at the Pier and failed attempts to relocate in downtown, the aquarium is leaving after 23 years and is moving to John's Pass. The non-profit marine research attraction plans to open in 10,000 square feet by December 2012.
"We will have three times the exhibit space. It's going to be a much more interesting and exciting experience," said Mark Luther, chairman of the aquarium's board and a professor at USF's College of Marine Science. The renamed Marine Discovery Center and Aquarium will showcase the marine science and technology in the area with interactive exhibits. The current aquarium is 2,200 square feet.
The Pier is slated to be demolished in 2012 or 2013 to make way for a $50 million makeover. Since the talk of changes began, residents have been unsure of the attraction's current status. Add that to a dismal economy and extremely cramped quarters and aquarium attendance has dropped from about 175,000 people in 2005 to around 85,000 last year.
"I was hopeful they would maintain a presence downtown," said St. Petersburg City Council member Herb Polson. "But you've got to strike when you can and if they got a good offer in a waterfront setting I hope it works well for them. It will be our loss.."
"I know nobody ever came to me and said, 'We're reaching a point where we're going to have to leave,' " said council member Steve Kornell. "We're the hub of marine science research in the whole Southeastern United States. I think we should have an education component for the Pier."
The aquarium has considered seven different downtown venues including BayWalk, the St. Petersburg Museum of History and a city-owned facility next to Al Lang Field, Luther said, but the rates or availability never panned out.
Aquarium officials announced in May that it would move elsewhere downtown. A later survey of members, sponsors and donors found there was support for a location at the beaches if downtown didn't work out. With $700,000 in grants and donations in hand, the aquarium will try to raise $3 million more for the new space.
Luther thinks the new facility will still draw many residents from St. Petersburg and throughout the area as well as more tourists.
"It caused me great concern moving away from downtown, but the reality is the Pier is going away," he said, "and we don't want to be the last ones to turn the light out when they leave."
Reach Katherine Snow Smith at (727) 893-8785.