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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.''

Clearwater Marine Aquarium may sharply scale back size of new facility 11/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 11:22pm]
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