CLEARWATER — City leaders squeezed a sweeter deal from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Tuesday in a tentative agreement to build a new downtown aquarium on city-owned land where City Hall now stands.
"We're upping the ante," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the aquarium's effort to convince voters to approve a Nov. 5 referendum on leasing the land to the aquarium. "It's a win-win for the city and the aquarium."
The Times reported Monday that Mayor George Cretekos was looking for a better deal for the city than the financial package the aquarium group first proposed.
In meetings with city officials Tuesday, aquarium leaders offered a new deal. The aquarium would pay a variable interest rate based on five-year U.S. Treasury bonds on the $7.5 million it has already promised to pay the city from a 50-cent admission surcharge over a period of years. Before Tuesday, the aquarium was planning to pay that sum without interest.
Once it has paid the $7.5 million, the aquarium will pay $250,000 a year for the remainder of the 60-year lease, up from the previously offered $150,000.
Cretekos now supports the deal and predicted it would pass unanimously at tonight's City Council meeting. Aquarium leaders have said it's important for the city government and aquarium to show a united face to the public on the issue.
Aquarium officials also huddled with City Council member Bill Jonson to address his concerns about the original proposal. Jonson said he is now "pleased" with the deal, but said he never decides how to vote before listening to public comments at meetings.
Politically, better financial terms "can only help" persuade voters to support the project, Hibbard said.
Cretekos agreed, saying that the major concerns he's heard, including that the city wasn't charging enough for the land lease and fears that tax money might be used to build the new aquarium, are now explicitly addressed in written form.
The Pinellas County Property Appraiser has placed the value of the City Hall property at $16.4 million. However, Cretekos and Hibbard said Tuesday that a city-commissioned appraisal taking into account that the aquarium is only leasing the property and can only build an aquarium on it, placed the value at $6.5 million.
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