CLEARWATER — On Tuesday, about 27,000 ballots will be mailed to Clearwater voters with one question for them to decide: Should the city negotiate with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on a 60-year lease for 5.7 acres of waterfront property downtown, including City Hall and municipal tennis courts?
Residents who don't vote by mail will go to the polls Nov. 5 for the special referendum.
The private nonprofit facility wants to build a new $160.5 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium on the city land. The three-level facility would include a dolphin stadium and a two-story coral reef tank as well as a new home for dolphins Winter, the star of the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, and Hope, who will debut in a movie sequel due to start filming next month.
The aquarium issue has been debated at neighborhood association meetings, City Council meetings and around the city in more informal settings for months. Yard signs urging a yes vote have started to sprout along roadsides and rival political action committees have formed.
On Oct. 8, CMA leaders and aquarium opponents are scheduled to debate at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key at 7 p.m.
But many people remain confused about what's at stake. Here are some frequent questions and answers.
What does the ballot question say?
"Shall the Clearwater City Charter be amended by adding Section 2. 01(d) (8) to allow the City to negotiate and enter into a lease with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Inc. for the construction, operation and maintenance of an aquarium on City owned property, located west of Osceola Avenue, east of the unimproved Pierce Boulevard right-of-way, north of Pierce Street and south of Cleveland St., for a 60 year term all as described in Ordinance 8418 -13?"
What does a yes vote mean?
A yes vote gives the city the right to start negotiating a 60-year lease with CMA, but does not compel the city to lease the land. A nonbinding preliminary agreement or "memorandum of understanding," approved last month by the City Council, provides a template for those talks.
It states the aquarium would give the city up to $7.5 million toward the cost of a new City Hall, generating the sum through a 50-cent per ticket payment. After that was paid, CMA would make lease payments of $250,000 annually for the remainder of the 60 years. CMA would also purchase land for a parking garage and pay the city $300,000 for four public tennis courts located below the bluff on which City Hall stands.
The city would likely choose to improve the Pierce Boulevard right of way to connect it to Drew Street to help with increased traffic and also build a traffic circle at the western end of Cleveland Street. City engineers estimate those fixes to be about $615,000.
What does a no vote mean?
The city could not negotiate a lease with CMA for the City Hall property. Aquarium leaders have said if they lose, they'll look for a way to expand on their current location on Island Estates.
Is the city giving the City Hall land to the aquarium?
No. The aquarium would just lease the property.
Will the city lose the land or have to pay if the aquarium goes bankrupt?
The agreement explicitly states that the city would have no obligation to assume any aquarium debts. The city also would retain ownership of the land. If the aquarium went belly up, creditors could bring in new management or sell off the contents, demolish the aquarium and return use of the property to the city.
The charter amendment would allow only an aquarium to be built on the site.
Will any tax dollars or credits be used to build the aquarium?
The memorandum of understanding states that no city general fund tax dollars may be used. However, CMA is counting on getting around $15 million in tax-increment financing. These tax dollars are generated by rising property values downtown, can only be spent on downtown projects and are intended to promote economic development in Clearwater.
CMA officials also are hoping for up to $63 million in county hotel bed taxes collected by the Pinellas County Tourism Development Council and $12 million worth of federal New Market tax credits.
If the referendum passes, is the aquarium obligated to follow through with building the aquarium?
No. If CMA can't raise the necessary funds by Aug. 1, 2016, or if the city and CMA can't reach a lease agreement by June 15, 2015, then the agreement dissolves.
Why does the aquarium want to be on the waterfront?
The aquarium relies on saltwater from the Intracoastal Waterway for its dolphin tanks and other animal care operations. The farther away from saltwater it is located, the more expensive it is to run.
CMA also says that a downtown location provides better access to Clearwater Beach tourists and its Island Estates facility.
Why does CMA need a new aquarium? What would happen to the current facility on Island Estates?
CMA leaders say that surging attendance since Dolphin Tale's release has made it difficult to accommodate all the new visitors at the small aquarium on Island Estates, which was fashioned from a former city sewage treatment plant. And there isn't available land to build an aquarium of that size on Island Estates.
If the referendum passes, a lease is successfully negotiated and the new aquarium is built, the Island Estates facility will become primarily a hospital for marine animals.
Won't a new aquarium lead to more traffic and parking problems downtown?
A traffic study released in August examined what would happen if the aquarium drew as many as 2 million visitors a year. It showed that several downtown intersections would be clogged at peak hours. The street improvements contemplated on Pierce and Cleveland streets would help, as would well-placed signs to help motorists avoid wrong turns. Construction of a parking garage with 567 spaces has been studied, but the final location and details haven't been decided. Aquarium officials have estimated the new facility might get up to 2.5 million visitors in the first year, but have since lowered estimates, emphasizing that only about 975,000 visitors are needed to break even financially.
What would be in the new aquarium?
Plans for the three-story aquarium show an outdoor "Everglades" exhibit; otter, waterbird, sea horse, jellyfish and manatee exhibits; a gift shop; classrooms; a dolphin stadium with several exhibits; a cafe; a two-story coral reef tank; 2-D and 4-D theater; a banquet hall and a roof-top deck.
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.