CLEARWATER — Making a bet on a tailless dolphin, Clearwater looks like it will give $750,000 in taxpayer funds to the private, nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium so it can buy the land next door and build a bigger parking lot.
City officials know this may turn out to be a controversial move during tight budget times.
But they think a major Hollywood movie currently filming at the smallish aquarium will turn it into a hotter tourist destination, creating a ripple effect for the local economy.
The film, Dolphin Tale, stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. — and the aquarium's most famous resident, Winter, a dolphin with a prosthetic tail.
The aquarium expects attendance to double or triple once Winter's life story starts playing out on movie screens next fall. They want to be ready for the crowds. But they say they're already cramped because the aquarium has been expanding.
Clearwater City Council members view this as a worthwhile investment in the future because beach tourism is by far the city's biggest industry. They indicated at a work session Monday they'll likely vote to spend the money at their meeting Thursday night.
"A lot of people are going to question how we can be doing it when we are shuttering other facilities," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, who argued that the city should operate like a business and make investments that will show a return. "I support this, and am willing to take any of the bullets that will come with that."
Council member Paul Gibson added, "We live on tourism. We've got to keep our eye on the ball. Forty percent of our property taxes come from across that bridge."
The aquarium says it needs more space because its attendance has grown by an average of 30 percent per year over the past four years. The attraction plans to expand, but it needs more parking.
The aquarium has a contract to buy the roughly 1.5-acre property next door. At one time, developers planned to put condominiums on the vacant lot between the aquarium and the Island Way Grill restaurant. That didn't pan out, and now the aquarium wants to make it a parking lot.
The aquarium needs the money to get a $750,000 matching grant from philanthropist Richard "Dick" Jacobson, a longtime Sand Key seasonal resident.
If the city pitches in, the aquarium will have $1.5 million to secure a mortgage for the $3.1 million property it needs..
Hibbard and Vice Mayor John Doran want to use funds from Clearwater's share of Penny for Pinellas sales taxes. Gibson and Councilman George Cretekos want to get it from the city's reserves. And Councilman Bill Jonson isn't convinced the city should give the money at all.
They'll vote on the matter Thursday night. The meeting will start at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.