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Clearwater Marine Aquarium's change to Harborview deal annoys City Council

CLEARWATER — A change the Clearwater Marine Aquarium now wants to make to its deal to use the city's Harborview Center struck a nerve with the City Council Monday.

The deal, as approved two weeks ago: The city would fix up the closed trade center for $172,000; the aquarium would open a satellite site there and pay the city back.

City leaders liked the plan. Who wouldn't? It was free.

One problem. Attorney Nathan Hightower said aquarium leaders want to move in early — around Sept. 15, before the site's November opening — but don't want to pay for those weeks of utilities.

It was a reasonable request, he said, because the city would be paying for the utilities in the building anyway. "I represent a tenant," Hightower said. "That tenant wants to have as many rights as it can get."

To which council members replied: What about us? The city would have to pay up to $10,000 in a deal that members were told would cost nothing. The aquarium would have to pay only $1 a year in rent.

"They're trying to add some sweeteners to a lease I thought had already been negotiated," council member Bill Jonson said after Monday's council work session. "For them to come back and say, 'Wait a minute, we want something else,' that didn't sit quite right with me."

Some were stumped as to why the aquarium would even bring it up. Compared to the project costs, the utilities would be chump change. Building out the site will cost the aquarium 12 times more than the utilities, and the aquarium could make millions off admissions.

Not everyone scoffed. Mayor Frank Hibbard said, "We make investments every day." But the attempt to skimp struck others on the council as opportunistic, even rude.

"I'm surprised and, frankly, a little disappointed that we're talking about this now," council member Paul Gibson said. "There's a difference in fronting some money and getting paid back … and just writing checks from the taxpayers' bank account."

Among those surprised: aquarium executive vice president Frank Dame. He knew the idea would give the city "heartburn," he said, and told Hightower days earlier just to ask to defer the costs. During the Monday meeting, he said, he was "just sitting there cringing."

Hightower and the council ultimately agreed to Dame's idea: lumping the utilities in with the center's repair costs, which the aquarium will pay back over 30 months. The council will likely vote on the revised lease Thursday.

Leaders from both sides said the squabble won't hurt their partnership. The aquarium still needs a relief valve for the flood of visitors that's expected to jam the Island Estates aquarium building following next month's release of the movie Dolphin Tale and will use the downtown Harborview for that purpose. The city stands to benefit from more visitors in its struggling downtown.

But last month's rushed negotiating has shown moments of strain. The aquarium's first proposal — that the city would pay for all repairs — was swatted down by a council that was still gun shy after granting $750,000 to the aquarium last year.

Some members criticized the aquarium for a lack of preparation, with council member John Doran saying they saw "one crisis after another." Others questioned why the city should hand over the Harborview to the aquarium when it just paid more than $600,000 to end the lease with the Harborview's last tenant, a deli, so the building could be torn down.

Hightower said moving in early would save the aquarium a few thousand dollars in storage of Dolphin Tale movie props, which they plan to put on display. He also asked that the aquarium be able to sublease the space, if necessary.

Members defended the aquarium's right to negotiate, saying it doesn't hurt to ask.

But "in retrospect," Vice Mayor George Cretekos said, "they may wish we had not had that conversation."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium's change to Harborview deal annoys City Council 08/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 7:41pm]
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