CLEARWATER — Just a few years ago, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was a dump. It was dingy and drab and looked every bit like the sewage treatment plant it used to be.
Since then, the place has been totally refurbished and upgraded. Attendance is up. Hollywood is making a movie about its most famous resident, Winter, a dolphin with a prosthetic tail.
And that's why Clearwater officials decided Thursday night to hand over $750,000 in taxpayer funds to the private, nonprofit aquarium.
For starters, the aquarium will use the money to buy the land next door and build a bigger parking lot. But over the long term, the 1.5-acre property it's acquiring could be a key piece of the aquarium's expansion plans.
The Clearwater City Council is taking some criticism for awarding the grant. But council members argue that it's a worthwhile investment because beach tourism is the city's biggest industry.
They think the upcoming movie, Dolphin Tale, will turn the aquarium into a hotter tourist destination, creating a ripple effect for Clearwater's economy.
"You can't go see Lassie or Flipper," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "You can come see Winter."
"This is a golden opportunity," added council member Paul Gibson. "We've got to keep people coming to the beach to fill those hotels."
The council voted 4-1 to give the aquarium $750,000 from the city's reserves, with only Bill Jonson opposed.
"This is a terrible time to have to deal with this," Jonson said.
Aquarium officials expect attendance to double or triple once the film comes out next fall. But they say they're already cramped and need more parking.
"We know the crowds will come," said executive vice president Frank Dame. "If they have a bad experience, they won't come back."
The 1.5-acre vacant lot between the aquarium and Island Way Grill restaurant is the last piece of property the aquarium needs to control a saltwater basin that runs alongside it.
Over the long term, aquarium CEO David Yates and Island Way Grill owner Frank Chivas, an aquarium board member, envision privatizing the cove to create a natural habitat for marine life, perhaps building an outdoor pavilion or boardwalk there someday.
At Thursday night's meeting, the heads of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce both lobbied the City Council to help the aquarium.
But two former City Council candidates, Joe Paige and Mike Riordon, voiced concerns. Riordon suggested giving a loan instead of a grant. And Paige said the aquarium shouldn't get tax money at all: "My opinion of a successful business is one that can support itself."
The aquarium needed the city's money to get a $750,000 matching grant from philanthropist Richard "Dick" Jacobson, a longtime Sand Key seasonal resident.
Jacobson donated $1 million, which he asked the aquarium to match. It was to pay for three phases of expansion in two installments of $125,000 and a third of $750,000.
The aquarium raised enough money to match the first two installments. It built a new 145,000-gallon dolphin pool, a sea turtle rehabilitation area and a surgical suite for injured marine animals.
But in this economy, the aquarium wasn't able to raise the final $750,000 of matching funds before the owners of the 1.5-acre vacant lot got a competing offer to buy the land.
Now that the city is pitching in, the aquarium will have $1.5 million to secure a mortgage for the $3.1 million property it wants.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.