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Big new aquarium in east Hillsborough? That's the hope of a team of developers

RIVERVIEW — Right now, a pond is the only water on an 84-acre parcel that stretches between Gornto Lake and Providence roads just north of busy Bloomingdale Avenue, but developers of an ambitious aquarium project want to change that.

If they have their way, a portion of the property would become home to Shore Lab Discovery Center, a $250 million aquarium complex brimming with 25 million gallons of water and 5,000 plant and animal species.

The complex would include a four-story rainforest exhibit, a dolphin encounter, tropical reef swimming experience, ecological park, research and education facilities and a 500-seat 4-D IMAX theater that would promote videos from a mascot research vessel dubbed the Lone Star Explorer.

Steve Robertson, chief executive of the nonprofit Shore Lab corporation, said the venue would not compete with the Florida Aquarium, located a dozen miles away in Tampa's core. Shore Lab's aquarium would differ in its theme and components, Robertson said.

The Tampa attraction focuses largely on Florida's aquatic environment, he said, though some exotic exhibits have been incorporated in recent years. Shore Lab would have a strong emphasis on hands-on learning and would focus on the origins of water and tracing its importance and inhabitants around the world through history.

But after reviewing Shore Lab's website (shorelabdiscoverycenter.org), Florida Aquarium spokesman Tom Wagner said he didn't see much difference between Shore Lab's mission and Tampa's aquarium. He added that Tampa Bay already is home to aquariums in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota.

"We already have exceptional education programs and conservation and research programs," he said. "I personally don't see a need in the area for another aquarium."

Still, developers say they have looked at other sites in the Tampa Bay area, including parcels in St. Petersburg, Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota. But east Hillsborough is the front-runner.

"We've done a tremendous amount of demographics (analysis) on that property," said Kenneth Holden, vice chairman of Shore Lab. "All the categories fit. … It would be an ideal location."

The parcel, currently zoned agricultural, is undeveloped except for a home owned by John Ernst, who runs beef cattle there. But Shore Lab developers say the past half-century has redefined the spot as the ideal site for a tourist attraction, perfectly positioned between Tampa and Orlando with easy access to Interstates 4 and 75.

The nonprofit Shore Lab was formed in 2009. Holden and Robertson of Brandon said they started pursuing the project after seeing the support for Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium, which touts having had more than 11 million visitors since opening in 2005.

The Atlanta project was fully funded by a corporate donor. Shore Lab founders said they are seeking similar financial support, as well as grants and federal and state funding.

Key to their efforts, though, is pinpointing a site. Holden said Shore Lab wants 30 to 40 acres for the complex. Real estate broker Justin Savich of Market Tampa, representing Ernst, said talks have focused on nestling the project behind county-owned Providence West Recreation Center. That would require developing an entrance from Providence Road, possibly by expanding a private road that runs along the north side of the park.

Ernst confirmed that he is in discussions with Shore Lab but added that he also has talked to home builders and discussed selling part of the property to the county to expand the park. The land in question sits on the southern border of Brandon and the northernmost boundary of Riverview.

Parties to the deal declined to discuss the land's purchase price, but a project summary prepared by Shore Lab shows property acquisition estimated at $12.5 million. Holden said the nonprofit hopes to negotiate a down payment that would put the site under contract while corporate officials woo funding sources.

Shore Lab's chief executive is a marine biologist with ties to the early days of the Florida Aquarium, along with a history of associations with aquariums in Texas, Tennessee, Italy, Japan, Portugal and France.

Robertson found himself at the center of a local media storm in 1999, when he kept several sharks in backyard, above-ground pools in the Heather Lakes subdivision. Last week, he characterized that incident as a rescue effort that "turned out to be kind of explosive."

Robertson was curator of the Florida Aquarium's reef exhibit, responsible for developing the display and capturing aquatic creatures to inhabit it, before the facility opened in March 1995. He was laid off in 1997, when the aquarium slashed its staff amid serious revenue shortfalls that led to the city of Tampa assuming responsibility for the aquarium's loan payments.

Since then, the Florida Aquarium's financial situation has improved substantially. The attraction recently announced a fundraising campaign aimed at building a $15 million expansion that would include five new classrooms and a special events center, spokesman Wagner said. He said aquarium officials hope to break ground on the expansion in about a year.

Tampa still subsidizes the aquarium at about $500,000 a year, said city spokeswoman Annette Spina. She said last week that city leaders had heard nothing about the Brandon area aquarium proposal.

Holden said the project's projections of more than a million visitors the first year are realistic, given the success of the Atlanta effort.

Shore Lab projects a total economic impact of about $100 million to the area, including anticipated expansion of hotels, restaurants and retailers that would benefit from visitors to the new attraction.

Given the poor economy, however, Holden said the project may need to be developed in phases, which would decrease the initial cost outlay and also delay the economic benefits.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Florida Aquarium is undertaking a $15 million capital campaign to expand its facilities. The amount was misstated in a previous version of this article.

Big new aquarium in east Hillsborough? That's the hope of a team of developers 11/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 3:50pm]

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