CLEARWATER — On the downtown waterfront just south of Clearwater City Hall, there's a large vacant lot that's nothing but grass and blacktop surrounded by a fence.
Calvary Baptist Church used to have its high school and Sunday School in a four-story building there. Eight years ago, the original developer of the nearby Water's Edge condo tower bought the lot and razed the building, hoping to put a second tower and a parking garage there.
That never happened, and the lot has remained empty ever since. Now the Tampa Bay Times has learned that the lot has a new owner: the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Pinellas County property records show that the aquarium purchased the 1.16-acre property last month from the current owner of Water's Edge for $2.1 million.
The land deal, which has been kept quiet, raises some interesting questions. Namely, what is the aquarium up to here?
When questioned, officials with the rapidly expanding aquarium said they're not sure yet what to do with their new acquisition.
"We don't have any definitive plans. We're going to sit down this month and look at ideas," aquarium CEO David Yates said Wednesday. "It could be any combination of things, from office space to parking to storage space."
One thing's for sure: "We have no intention of moving Dolphin Tale Adventure down there," Yates said. "It's not a huge parcel of land."
Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure is a movie-prop exhibit that the aquarium opened in the city's downtown Harborview Center in 2011 to relieve pressure from the main aquarium on Island Estates near Clearwater Beach. That small aquarium has struggled to handle the overflow crowds generated by the film Dolphin Tale.
However, the movie-prop exhibit will likely have to relocate at some point because Clearwater officials still want to demolish the aging Harborview Center. The aquarium's lease at the Harborview runs out in a year.
This year, the aquarium and its board will be trying to decide what to do with the Dolphin Tale Adventure and the main aquarium itself.
Aquarium leaders have talked of building a substantially larger new home, preferably in downtown Clearwater, which would take the aquarium's animals, name, shows and crowds coming to see Winter the dolphin. In this scenario, the current aquarium on Island Estates would be solely devoted to animal rescue and rehabilitation.
This idea leads us back to the downtown vacant lot that the aquarium just bought south of City Hall. Located south of Pierce Street and west of Osceola Avenue, the lot by itself doesn't look large enough to house an aquarium as well as the necessary parking. "That property is not enormous," Yates said.
So, does this mean the aquarium is interested in acquiring the City Hall property next door? In years past, the city has expressed interest in selling the City Hall site on the Clearwater Harbor bluff, although voters would have to approve any such deal.
"We don't have any deal with the city," Yates said. "There are a lot of discussions going on right now, but we don't have any definitive plans for anything like that. We're going to look at all options. It's very much in the early stages."
Mayor George Cretekos and City Manager Bill Horne said Wednesday there is no behind-the-scenes agreement for the aquarium to purchase City Hall.
"We're waiting for them to come to us," the mayor said. "I'm sure they probably have discussed that, but I don't know specifically what their plans are."
Cretekos wants the City Council to discuss the Harborview Center issue with aquarium officials at a public council meeting sometime this spring.
"I don't want to wait until the last minute of their lease to have this discussion," the mayor said. "We need to know what the aquarium's plans are, so we can figure out what we're going to do with Coachman Park and the Harborview Center."
Horne said the city has been giving the aquarium time to sort out its options.
"They have been spending time trying to figure out where they would pursue a second location," the city manager said. "They've looked at all the options along the waterfront. They have not come to us and said, 'This is what we'd like to do.' "
Another option could be to build a new aquarium at the Harborview Center site. That also would require voter approval.
"Wherever CMA decides to build an aquarium, I think a referendum will go quite well," said Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership. "Because it's so good for the community, not just for tourists. Aquariums are very popular."
As for the aquarium's CEO, Yates said his main focus right now is the construction work that's going on at the existing aquarium. Workers there are finishing a new animal rehabilitation area and are starting on a new visitor lobby and dolphin pool.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.