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Clearwater mayor criticizes tentative deal on new aquarium

An artist’s rendering of a two-story coral reef tank in a proposed new Clearwater Marine Aquarium at the City Hall site.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

An artist’s rendering of a two-story coral reef tank in a proposed new Clearwater Marine Aquarium at the City Hall site.

CLEARWATER — Mayor George Cretekos said Monday that he is unlikely to support a proposed agreement between the city and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a $160.5 million new aquarium on city-owned land unless aquarium leaders agree to more generous financial terms.

A proposed memorandum of understanding discussed at a City Council work session Monday calls for the aquarium to pay the city $7.5 million derived from a 50-cent surcharge on ticket sales to cover the cost of a new City Hall. The current City Hall on Osceola Avenue would be demolished to build the new 200,000-square-foot aquarium.

After the $7.5 million threshold was reached — in roughly 15 years if the attraction meets break-even attendance estimates — the aquarium would pay the city $150,000 a year for the rest of the 60-year lease of the land.

Those terms aren't good enough and might endanger the success of a Nov. 5 city referendum on the deal, Cretekos said.

"That's not a deal in my opinion. It's a deal breaker," he said.

Instead, he suggested, the aquarium should pay the surcharge to the city plus the $150,000 lease for 60 years.

The other four council members didn't warm to Cretekos' idea, although member Bill Jonson's proposal that inflation be factored into the payments did gain some traction.

Former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the effort to win voter approval of the land lease, declined to say whether he was surprised by Cretekos' comments, considering that the rough outlines of the agreement have been circulating for weeks.

But he said he and Clearwater Marine Aquarium leaders would meet with City Attorney Pam Akin today to hammer out a revised deal.

"What we're hoping for is to get a good deal for the city and the aquarium that everyone can support. So that we can, as a unified group, go to the citizens and ask for their support," he said.

He said his group might even be amenable to an inflation index.

Cretekos said Monday evening that he thought a deal could be worked out that would make him more comfortable. "I think something will develop that puts us in a better position," he said.

Hibbard emphasized that the payment structure in the current working document is already a fair price.

The City Hall property, which overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway downtown, has been appraised at $16.5 million. If the aquarium paid the city $7.5 million over 15 years plus $150,000 a year for 45 years, it would end up paying the city almost the current appraised value of the property, yet it wouldn't own it or have unlimited use of it.

"Our development rights are restricted to building an aquarium. Period. We can't decide to build luxury apartments on that property," he said.

Some council members appeared satisfied with the current working agreement.

"I think it's fair and equitable. I'm comfortable with the (agreement) as it's presented today," said council member Jay Polglaze.

If voters approve, the aquarium would have until August 2016 to raise the money to build the aquarium or the agreement would dissolve.

CMA would bear the full costs of building and maintaining the aquarium under the current proposal. The city would not be liable if CMA defaulted on any of its loans or obligations, the agreement states.

The council is scheduled to vote on the agreement at its Wednesday regular meeting.

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

Clearwater mayor criticizes tentative deal on new aquarium 08/12/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 9:35am]
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