CLEARWATER — The city's elected leaders got a look at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's plans for a new facility Tuesday, and they had some questions. Namely, they want to make sure that Clearwater taxpayers won't be left holding the bag if things don't go as planned.
The City Council will discuss the issue again at a public meeting tonight, when they will likely decide whether to grant the aquarium leaders' request for a referendum in November.
At a council work session Tuesday, aquarium officials described their plans to build a $160 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium in downtown Clearwater on the site now occupied by City Hall. Voter approval is required for the aquarium to be able to lease the City Hall land.
"We are all frightened about the number — $160 million is a lot of money," said Mayor George Cretekos, who added, "We keep hearing there's going to be 2 million visitors (a year). What happens if there's only 1 million visitors?"
Aquarium officials expressed confidence in their plan and worked to convince city leaders that a new aquarium would be beneficial for downtown Clearwater and for the city as a whole. They said money to build the new facility would come from a wide range of public and private sources, and they assured the city that they won't come asking for tax money from Clearwater's general fund.
"The vision is to have this as the anchor for downtown, along with the Capitol Theatre and the other investments you've made," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who's on the aquarium's board of directors.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson noted that the aquarium's plan calls for raising $35-$60 million from government entities. "To what level are we part of that?" he asked.
Hibbard said that, if the referendum passes, the aquarium would seek state tourism funds as well as a share of Pinellas County's 5-cent bed tax from hotel stays.
From Clearwater, the aquarium would likely ask for some of the tax money generated from downtown, a designated Community Redevelopment Area. Under a technique called "tax increment financing," any taxes collected on increased property values in downtown can be plowed into redevelopment of the downtown rather than going back to into local government coffers.
It's also possible that money from a city parking fund could help build a parking garage for the new facility, especially if the aquarium donated to the city a 1-acre vacant lot just south of City Hall that it recently bought for $2.1 million.
"We think what we will generate for the city in turn will far outweigh that contribution" of the parking funds, Hibbard said.
Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito wondered what kind of risk the city could be facing in a deal for the City Hall property.
Hibbard said much of the risk is on the aquarium's side, because nothing will happen unless the plan gets voter approval and the aquarium can actually raise the money it needs. "If we cannot perform on our side, the status quo remains," he said. In that case, neither the aquarium nor City Hall will move.
Hock-DiPolito also asked about comments by Florida Aquarium officials in Tampa questioning whether the Clearwater aquarium's plan is economically feasible.
David Yates, the Clearwater aquarium's CEO, defended the aquarium's prediction of 2.5 million visitors in the new facility's first year. He said that's based on attendance at other new aquariums around the country. He said a state-of-the-art attraction near the beach, combined with the internationally known story of Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, could draw tourist families who are vacationing in Orlando.
"We think our numbers are very conservative in some ways," Yates said.
Although City Council members insist they'll watch out for Clearwater taxpayers, they also like to dream big.
"I'm of the generation of Lassie. I still remember Lassie," the mayor said. "Winter could become this generation's Lassie."
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.