MADEIRA BEACH — City officials appear poised to guarantee a $2.5 million, one-year bridge construction loan for the planned Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium at John's Pass Village.
Tuesday, the City Commission told City Manager Shane Crawford to continue negotiating the loan terms with aquarium and Bank of Tampa officials.
"I think it would be a thumbs up at this stage," Mayor Travis Palladeno said after Crawford explained how the loan guarantee would work.
According to Crawford, the city would not actually have to spend any of its money and would be protected against default during the yearlong period.
"There is a little bit of risk, but it is almost risk-free," Crawford said.
The loan payments would be made by the aquarium from escrowed money already raised through a variety of donations.
At the end of the year, the city's participation in the aquarium loan would expire.
Crawford said before he would ask the commission for final approval, an outside third party will verify the aquarium's financial status.
A decision is needed in June, according to Crawford, so that the aquarium can stay on schedule for an early spring 2013 opening.
The short-term loan is needed to allow construction to begin this summer to convert space in the John's Pass garage building for the aquarium's use.
The attraction will include 40 marine-related exhibits illustrating information about the sea and the creatures that live within it.
Much of the technology behind the exhibits is being developed by the St. Petersburg Ocean Team, a consortium of university programs, environmental organizations, researchers, businesses, and national, state and government agencies that are focused on marine science.
The planned exhibits include aquariums, touch screens, interactive activities and a 5-foot wide globe with satellite data showing weather patterns in the Atlantic Ocean and fish migration in the Pacific Ocean.
An underwater microphone will transmit sounds of dolphins swimming through John's Pass.
About 250,000 people are expected to visit the aquarium each year, generating $8 million in economic impact for Madeira Beach and the surrounding community, according to aquarium president and CEO Howard Rutherford.
Rutherford confirmed Friday that the organization has enough money on hand to cover the first year's $84,000 in loan payments and is "in conversations'' with a donor who has indicated an interest in guaranteeing the construction loan after the city's year is completed.
Donors have already pledged $2 million toward the aquarium's $5 million fundraising goal. The money will be used to help pay for construction and remodeling and provide cash flow until the aquarium is fully operating.