CLEARWATER — Less than two weeks after the Clearwater Marine Aquarium got a green light from voters to proceed with preliminary plans for a new downtown aquarium, what had been a $160.5 million project with lots of bells and whistles could be scaled down, at least initially, CMA officials said.
After last week's early warning signal from the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council that the project might not win hotel bed tax funding, CMA officials confirmed they have batted around an idea to shave one-quarter off the 200,000-square-foot project and build in stages.
But downsizing remains just one option. Equally viable is building out the original plan, said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO.
"We don't have any definitive plans right now," he said. "It's been a 30,000-foot up in the air discussion until the referendum. Now, we're getting down to the ground floor. We're going to be smart about this and we're going to be flexible."
Some opponents of the project are accusing the private, nonprofit aquarium of selling one vision to Clearwater voters only to reduce its scope after they won. But no one should feel tricked, said Carl Schrader, a neighborhood activist who voted against CMA's plan in the Nov. 5 referendum.
The tentative agreement between the city and aquarium approved in August was nonbinding and provided plenty of wiggle room for the aquarium plan, he said.
"All the clues were there. If you didn't see it, shame on you," said Schrader, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition.
Most voters seem to want something done to improve downtown — the scaled-back vision hasn't raised much of a ruckus. And there's not much opponents could do now anyway — the city's voters have spoken, he said.
"If they put a fish tank on a TV stand, that's an aquarium," Schrader said.
The referendum gave a clear 55 percent to 45 percent victory for CMA, with only three of the city's 40 precincts voting against leasing the City Hall property on the downtown waterfront to the aquarium. Roughly 25 percent of the city's registered voters cast a ballot.
City Council member Bill Jonson didn't immediately jump on the bandwagon for a yes vote when the City Council debated the proposed memorandum of understanding between the city and aquarium. He, along with Mayor George Cretekos, had to be lobbied hard by CMA officials for their support, which they eventually gave.
Soon, the city will start negotiating a 60-year lease on 5.5 acres currently occupied by City Hall. CMA has said it will pay $7.5 million for a new City Hall and annual payments up to $250,000 once that sum is paid off. Whether a smaller aquarium will lead to tweaks in that tentative agreement remains to be seen.
"The ball is in their court to move into this next phase. I'm waiting until we get something that we can chew on," Jonson said.
This week's rumblings of a different vision didn't surprise Jonson.
"It's not necessarily different from what I expected. It's still very early in the process."
On Thursday, the "Starfish Committee," a mix of CMA staff and board members, met to discuss options. The committee has no set meeting schedule, but meets as needed, Yates said.
"The takeaway from this: We're analyzing the details and initiating the fundraising campaign," Yates said.
That analysis should include going back to the aquarium's core mission, said Thom Stork, CEO of Tampa's Florida Aquarium.
"While we don't know the details behind their decision and haven't seen the results of the feasibility study, it is our hope that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium will use this opportunity to focus on what they do best — their rescue and rehabilitation efforts — and work toward expanding that important initiative," Stork said.
Last week at the Tourist Development Council meeting, Frank Dame, CMA's chief operating officer, told the Tampa Bay Times that some potential donors found a smaller aquarium, perhaps built in stages, more "palatable."
Yates said that no donor has told him they prefer to go smaller.
"Right now, the plan is to build as is," Yates said.
But a feasibility study is still at least a month from completion and things could change, he said.
"We're hammering out the details. You don't do a project this size without floating a lot of ideas," Yates said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.