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Clearwater aquarium feasibility study won't be done before referendum

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has hired consultants to determine whether its plan for a $160.5 million downtown aquarium is feasible.

But voters probably won't have the consultants' answer when they go to the polls Nov. 5 to decide whether the city may start negotiations with aquarium officials on a 60-year lease of the city-owned property on S Osceola Avenue where Clearwater City Hall now stands.

The study, commissioned earlier this month, almost certainly won't be done by Nov. 5, and definitely will not be available for those who vote early by mail ballots, which go out Oct. 1.

"We've been pushing them on it, but it doesn't look like it's going to be done," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the effort to persuade residents to vote yes.

Consultants will pore over attendance projections, the size of the facility, tourism and residential demographics and ticket prices, and compare them to other aquariums, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium.

CMA officials had said earlier that they hadn't decided if city officials or the public would ever get to see the feasibility study. But Tuesday, they said they will make the study public before starting lease negotiations with the city — provided, of course, voters give city officials permission to negotiate.

"It's the right thing to do," Hibbard said.

Aquarium opponents say a feasibility study is essential information that voters need before they go to the polls, not just if the vote goes CMA's way.

"Clearwater voters still, in most cases, do not know what they are really voting for," R. Michael Donovan wrote to the Times in an email.

Donovan and his wife, Sarah, have been active in the anti-aquarium political action committee Friends of Clearwater Inc. They live in Water's Edge, a downtown condo tower that would be next door to the new aquarium.

AECOM, a Los Angeles-based management and technical services firm, was hired in early September to do the feasibility study. A company spokesman didn't return a call requesting comment.

The aquarium waited to hire a consultant, said aquarium CEO David Yates, until Hollywood decided whether to make a sequel to Dolphin Tale, the 2011 movie about CMA's star dolphin Winter that produced a huge uptick in attendance at the aquarium's current location on Island Estates.

Filming on the sequel is scheduled to begin next month in Clearwater.

In a perfect world, the ink would have dried on the consulting contract in time to get the study done by Nov. 5, Hibbard said. But analyzing the economic viability of a downtown aquarium without factoring in potential merchandising and branding dollars that a sequel might generate didn't make sense, he said.

“We have to have a plan that needs to be really rock-solid to get that financing. To get a feasibility study prior to having a sequel would have undermined that," Hibbard said. "In a perfect scenario, we would have signed up the sequel eight or nine months ago … But Hollywood works on the schedule that Hollywood wants to work on."

Voters need more details, not fewer, Donovan wrote.

"Any feasibility study should be made public before the … vote," he wrote. "It's our city, not theirs."

Hibbard said if the study concludes the project isn't viable, the aquarium will kill its plans for a downtown venue.

Last month, aquarium and city officials tentatively agreed that if CMA can't raise the financing for the new aquarium by Aug. 1, 2016, or can't agree on lease terms by June 15, 2015, then the deal is off.

That point is often overlooked by critics and missed entirely by many residents, Hibbard said.

How voters will react to the study being completed after Nov. 5 is hard to gauge, said Mayor George Cretekos.

"We had suggested, staff had suggested, that they get that feasibility study done sooner rather than later," Cretekos said.

But Cretekos said he thinks the sharpest arrow in CMA's quiver in the final weeks before the vote is the movie sequel announced in late July. The state gave $5 million to the aquarium to help seal the deal with the movie studio that will make the sequel.

"That gives them the opportunity to continue to build on what they've been trying to do," Cretekos said.

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago

Clearwater aquarium feasibility study won't be done before referendum 09/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 7:06pm]
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