Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Business

Clearwater Marine Aquarium may sharply scale back size of new facility

CLEARWATER — Clearwater's new planned aquarium, propelled by a tail-less dolphin, may shrink in size and cost less than half of the earlier $160.5 million estimate, aquarium officials said Tuesday.

Last week, Clearwater voters approved a referendum to allow Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build its new facility on land now occupied by City Hall. Discussions before the vote estimated the size at 200,000 square feet, though aquarium officials, at times, suggested that the size and cost might come down.

In interviews Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Times, officials gave a more precise picture. They are still hashing out details, but said the final product might cost as little as $60 million.

The size might drop to 150,000 square feet, with room to expand later, said chief operating officer Frank Dame. A preliminary projection of $800 a square foot might shrink to $400.

"We may have to cut back on some of the wow factors,'' Dame said. "We can make it a very nice facility, but it is not going to be the Georgia Aquarium. Monterey Bay is not the Georgia Aquarium either, but it still attracts millions of visitors a year.''

Former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who will lead fundraising efforts for a 2017 opening, said aquarium officials will meet this week to consider possible savings — among them, building in stages to cover more construction costs through ongoing revenue rather than debt.

A dolphin tank, the two-story coral reef tank and living spaces for the otters and sea turtles is "non-negotiable," Hibbard said.

But delaying outdoor attractions like the Everglades exhibit and manatee display gives visitors a reason to return, he said.

The $800-a-square-foot estimate came from Atlanta architects who used the ritzy Georgia Aquarium as a template, he said.

"We didn't want to be low-balling and then not be able to meet constructions costs,'' Hibbard said. "That being said, I think it was overdone.''

The Georgia Aquarium was underwritten by a Home Depot founder who "spared no expense,'' Hibbard said. "I don't think that fits with the personality of CMA. We have humbler wants.''

Though aquarium officials talked privately of downsizing for months, they stuck publicly with the higher cost estimate because voters are leery of overly optimistic projections, Hibbard said.

"I would rather underpromise and overdeliver,'' he said. "If we didn't look to economize, then shame on us."

Aquarium CEO David Yates said spending a lot of money to fine-tune plans before the referendum didn't make sense.

"We didn't sit down, have the referendum pass and then say, 'Let's change this thing,' " Yates said.

Tom Petersen, a vocal aquarium opponent, said a smaller facility would mean fewer people through the turnstiles. The aquarium has pledged to pay the city $7.5 million from ticket sales for a new city hall, he noted, and that would take longer with lower attendance.

"It puts the whole thing up in the air," Petersen said.

Last year, CMA drew 750,000 visitors to its 53,000-square-foot aquarium fashioned from a former sewage treatment plant on Island Estates. Throngs came to see Winter, whose prosthetic tail was memorialized in the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. Filming is under way on a sequel.

Dame said a new 150,000-square-foot aquarium could draw up to 2.1 million visitors a year.

"If we reduce overhead and attract the people we say we're going to attract, we can pay back the city more quickly," Dame said.

Mayor George Cretekos said he isn't worried that a smaller aquarium will put a financial pinch on the city.

"The important thing for us not to lose sight of: This is going to be Winter's new home. Do you need 200,000 square feet to tell that story or can you do it in 150,000 square feet? I don't think it will have much of an impact."

Though the nonprofit aquarium plans to cover some construction costs through private donations, officials also hope to tap into Pinellas County's 5 percent hotels and motel "bed tax."

The tax now brings in more than $30 million a year, which goes for marketing, beach nourishment and various capital projects that attract tourists.

An obligation to help pay off Tropicana Field bonds expires in 2015, freeing up about $6 million a year for other projects. That amount could double if the county bumps the tax up 1 percent as allowed by state law.

The Tourist Development Council met Tuesday and spent much of its time discussing how to evaluate spending requests given the coming influx of cash.

County Commissioner Karen Seel was appointed to lead a committee to create criteria for judging competing projects.

Based on a preliminary survey released Tuesday, the aquarium may face headwinds.

When the tourist council's 17 members were recently polled on their priorities, 11 did not want to finance aquariums, according to a survey by the Tampa firm Research Data Services. Five favored money for aquariums and one vote came in late and did not make the report.

Beaches were the council's top priority for capital spending, followed by amateur and spring training sports facilities. Professional sports facilities — like a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays — garnered mixed support.

"I think the reality is the longer the Rays discussion doesn't happen, the longer they're focused on Tampa, the more we're going to invest those dollars elsewhere," said Pinellas Commission Chairman Ken Welch.

Dame found the council's lukewarm response to aquariums disappointing, but said he hoped to change minds in about six months when the aquarium makes its official request.

Among other things, aquarium officials will tout a financial impact study that indicates the aquarium will generate $2 billion to $5 billion in economic activity in the five years since the 2011 release of Dolphin Tale.

"It's an internationally recognized brand,'' Dame told the council. "It's worthy to have a building that is appropriate for our visiting out-of-town guests to come in, rather than a former sewage treatment plant.''

Comments
Passengers on fatal Southwest flight sue airline and manufacturers of plane and engine

Passengers on fatal Southwest flight sue airline and manufacturers of plane and engine

Eight passengers who were aboard a Southwest Airlines flight that was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia after one of its engines blew apart filed suit Wednesday against the airline, Boeing and the companies that manufactured the eng...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Former employee sued by Tesla says he was a whistleblower

Former employee sued by Tesla says he was a whistleblower

Tesla sued a former employee Wednesday, accusing the man of hacking the automaker’s computer systems and stealing company secrets, shedding light on what chief Elon Musk had suggested was the work of a secretive internal saboteur.But the employee, Ma...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Seminole Heights restaurant Mortar & Pestle files for bankruptcy reorganization

Seminole Heights restaurant Mortar & Pestle files for bankruptcy reorganization

TAMPA — Mortar & Pestle, a fledgling Seminole Heights eatery with a mom-and-pop pharmacy theme, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Seacoast Bank was listed as the creditor with the largest unsecured claim: $1.4 million.The restaurant...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Could Lucky’s Market move in to Clearwater’s old Albertsons?

Could Lucky’s Market move in to Clearwater’s old Albertsons?

Lucky’s Market is considering a move in to the old Albertsons box space in Clearwater, according to preliminary plans filed with the city. Lucky’s master broker, Rick Lewellyn, was listed on an agenda as discussing renovating the existing property wi...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Developer proposes Sprouts Farmers Market for Land O’Lakes

Developer proposes Sprouts Farmers Market for Land O’Lakes

LAND O’LAKES – A Sarasota developer is proposing to turn a vacant Winn-Dixie store in central Pasco into a Sprouts Farmers Market or similar specialty grocer.Benderson Development filed preliminary plans Monday with Pasco County to redevelop the form...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Clearwater’s Clegg Insurance Group buys Advanced Insurance Brokerage

Clearwater’s Clegg Insurance Group buys Advanced Insurance Brokerage

CLEARWATER - Clegg Insurance Group of Clearwater announced on Wednesday it has bought Brandon-based Advanced Insurance Brokerage.The merger creates a firm with more than 2,000 customers and more than $10 million in annual premiums. Terms were not dis...
Published: 06/20/18
Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

Wine dinners, beer projects and more will wet your whistle this summer

FILIPINO FOOD: WELCOME CHISMISHave you been to the Heights Public Market at the 73,000-square-foot Armature Works yet? It’s the buzzy food market in Tampa Heights with more than a dozen vendors offering up everything from rolled ice cream to Cuban sa...
Published: 06/20/18
Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

Citizens considers hiking homeowners insurance rates about 8 percent

Citizens Property Insurance Corp.’s is weighing another round of hefty rate hikes.Staffers with the state-run insurer of last resort have proposed raising the average rates for homeowners by 7.9 percent — just under the legislative cap of 10 percent ...
Published: 06/20/18
A tight supply cuts into Tampa Bay homes sales while prices keep rising

A tight supply cuts into Tampa Bay homes sales while prices keep rising

Tampa Bay’s two largest counties showed anemic home sales in May as prices continued to rise due to a tight supply.In Pinellas, sales of single-family home plunged nearly 12 percent from the previous May, the second-worst showing in a year. Prices, t...
Published: 06/20/18
Pinellas County files suit against companies who built Public Safety Complex

Pinellas County files suit against companies who built Public Safety Complex

CLEARWATER –– The Pinellas County Public Safety Complex was built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, but officials now say the $81 million fortress has water leaks and cracked walls.The county filed a lawsuit this month against Harvard Jolly, the S...
Published: 06/20/18