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Clearwater aquarium boosters field questions

CLEARWATER — The sales pitch on a new downtown aquarium has begun, and boosters have encountered some enthusiasm, some skepticism and plenty of probing questions.

Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials are stumping for a proposed new $160.5 million aquarium where City Hall now stands on a bluff overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

It's prime downtown real estate.

During a recent meeting in the middle-class Skycrest neighborhood east of downtown, Hibbard fielded questions from residents who feared higher taxes, fewer dollars flowing to neighborhoods, traffic congestion and parking problems around the planned three-story, 200,000-square-foot aquarium.

Hibbard said taxes would not be raised. As for starving the interior Skycrest neighborhood to fatten the waterfront?

"Broaden the base!" Hibbard boomed, before self-deprecatingly adding: "I sound like I'm running for president."

Then an older man raised his hand.

"Do you believe with building this that we can take back Clearwater to the way it was? So it belongs to the people of Clearwater?" the man asked.

Hibbard responded: "I think this is the last, best chance. That's why I'm on this journey. … I believe we can be respectful of everybody downtown that lives there."

"We're never going to get rid of it," the man responded.

Rusty Pascual, a retired New Yorker who is new to Clearwater, raised his hand and asked, basically, who "it" was.

"I think he's talking about Scientology," Hibbard said as the first man nodded. "A lot of people want to take back downtown from Scientology."

Hibbard said after the meeting that Scientology has been brought up at every one of the half-dozen or so presentations he's made in the city.

The Church of Scientology responded to a request for comment with a statement from spokeswoman Pat Harney.

"The Church and its parishioners have been in Clearwater for almost 40 years, are happy to live here and are proud of helping to make Clearwater a thriving and prosperous city," she wrote in an e-mail.

A week later, Hibbard met with a far smaller, more powerful group at the Harborview Center.

Scientology didn't come up.

Instead, the bankers, financiers, developers and executives invited to that meeting homed in on financing for the project.

Retired Clearwater banker David Stone expressed skepticism that the aquarium group could obtain the $10.5 million it wants in bank loans without agreeing that the bank could seize the land under the new aquarium, not just the contents of the facility, in a default.

But the land the aquarium proposes to use is city-owned property, and the city hasn't agreed to give it up.

Under a tentative agreement between the city and aquarium, the aquarium would lease the city-owned property on Osceola Avenue for 60 years. City residents will decide whether to allow the lease in a Nov. 5 referendum.

Even if the aquarium can't promise banks the land as collateral, Stone said, CMA still needs to refine its message.

"You need to present a clearer picture of how things will work financially," Stone said.

Hibbard's predecessor as mayor, Brian Aungst Sr., said there is "no downside" for residents. If CMA can't raise the money, then City Hall stays where it is and everyone walks away financially unscathed.

Many people have voiced concern that Winter, the aquarium's dolphin with a prosthetic tail and star of the hit movie Dolphin Tale, might die, dooming a new aquarium's prospects, Aungst said.

But the sequel that will begin filming this fall will feature Hope, another rescued dolphin at the Clearwater aquarium.

"For both of them to die? The odds of me getting struck by lightning walking to my car are probably greater than that," Aungst said.

In both meetings, Hibbard touted the benefits of a new aquarium. It would revive downtown, provide a world-class attraction that would make the city proud and attract hotels, restaurants and other businesses to an area officially considered blighted.

Hibbard said CMA — fresh off a hit movie, experiencing booming attendance and now subject of a movie sequel — seems to have a magical touch.

"Things just work out for the aquarium," he said. "Whenever you think there is a hurdle we can't get over, it just somehow falls away."

But what if a hurdle proves too high?

Developer Joe Burdette said that when hotels on Clearwater Beach ran onto fiscal shoals, banks would take a loss to get another buyer to agree to take over the property at a discount.

The same scenario would happen if the aquarium didn't make it, he said.

"Banks always take the hit," Burdette said.

Howard Sachs, a senior vice president at Raymond James, wasn't so sure. He said although he's rooting for the aquarium to be a success, the numbers don't quite add up for him.

And if it goes belly up?

"When hotels fail, sure, there are usually others who will step in, especially at a bargain price, but I don't know if there is a long line of people waiting to run an aquarium," Sachs said.

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

Clearwater aquarium boosters field questions 08/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 7:03pm]

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