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With the success of Winter the dolphin and 'Dolphin Tale,' the Clearwater Marine Aquarium needs a bigger facility at a new location

CLEARWATER — Less than a year after the film Dolphin Tale quadrupled the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's average attendance, the facility is planning its biggest move yet.

Aquarium leaders want to build a splashy and "substantially bigger" new home, possibly in downtown Clearwater, which would take the aquarium's animals, name, shows and swelling crowds coming to see the star of the 2011 movie, Winter the dolphin.

The current aquarium in Island Estates would be devoted to animal rescue and rehabilitation. It would be renamed the Clearwater Marine Hospital, after the film's fictional backdrop.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said it's too early to say where or when the new aquarium would open or how much the move could cost. Executive vice president Frank Dame said he'd like to submit a proposal within six months.

Opened in the 1970s in what was once a sewage treatment plant, the small aquarium has struggled to handle the overflow crowds generated by Winter, the star of Dolphin Tale. The movie at one point was the biggest box office draw in North America. (You can read stories and see video about Winter and Dolphin Tale at links.tampabay.com.)

Each of the aquarium's past three months, Yates said, has seen more visitors than the entire year of 2006. Most of them came from out of town, helping to make March the highest-grossing month in history for Pinellas County tourism.

Aquarium leaders opened a movie-prop exhibit, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, at the downtown Harborview Center last year to relieve pressure from the main attraction in Island Estates near Clearwater Beach.

But even the Harborview site has doubled projections, with more than 300,000 guests expected to visit in the first year. Yates said that exhibit would be folded into the new site.

A $12 million expansion now under construction at the current aquarium will be scaled back, including halving the size of a dolphin stadium once planned to hold 1,500 guests. A newly built three-floor animal care, office and education complex will open there next month to hold expanded summer camps.

Speculation about the aquarium's new home has typically focused on the Harborview Center, a sprawling former trade center on the downtown waterfront bluff. The aquarium's movie exhibit, the center's sole tenant, has stalled the city's plans to demolish the aging Harborview.

Dame said they "would like to have a presence in the downtown," but would not name a specific site for fear it might drive up the price. Yates said the aquarium would consider locations citywide.

Aquarium leaders have begun researching their expansion idea, traveling last week to Atlanta to see the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest aquarium. Its designers helped develop the Dolphin Tale movie exhibit and will consult on the new aquarium site's design.

Leaders will also visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, Canada's largest aquarium, in the next few weeks.

Leaders are considering opening the aquarium — known for its dolphins, sea turtles and otters — to more exotic animals adopted from rescues around the world, Dame said.

The aquarium has "virtually no debt" and an untapped $8.5 million line of credit, Dame said, adding that current construction has been funded by revenue from ticket sales and merchandise. But it will take a few months to estimate costs and pinpoint a source of funding.

The aquarium, Dame said, will seek a "public-private partnership" with the city for its new facility. City leaders granted the aquarium $750,000 in 2010 but balked at a request last year to pay for more than $100,000 in Harborview Center repairs in advance of the aquarium's movie exhibit.

The film's impact on local tourism is "jaw-dropping," Yates said, with projections of "hundreds of millions of dollars." The film cost $37 million to make and earned nearly twice that at box offices nationwide.

If a Dolphin Tale sequel is produced, the local impact could further balloon. Yates said the aquarium has established a "long-term relationship" with the film's production studio, Alcon Entertainment, which could lead to a second project, but he added, "No guarantees."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com.

With the success of Winter the dolphin and 'Dolphin Tale,' the Clearwater Marine Aquarium needs a bigger facility at a new location 05/19/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 1:57pm]
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