ST. PETERSBURG — As city leaders continue to grapple with how to remake the aging Pier, one of the icon's landmark tenants is making plans to move out.
The Pier Aquarium will stay downtown, and is looking at two waterfront locations, said Howard Rutherford, its president and CEO. He plans to move by Jan. 1, 2012.
Officials hope the move will be part of a larger makeover that will include a name change and an increased emphasis on research and education as a way to distinguish it from other Tampa Bay area aquariums. In fact, officials do not consider their proposed Marine Discovery Center an "aquarium" at all.
"We don't want to be an aquarium," said Sharon Handy, a senior project manager with Hands On, which designs museum exhibitions and worked with the aquarium on the Marine Discovery Center. "Nobody needs a bigger aquarium — there's plenty of those around."
It's still in the idea stage, but officials say the new facility will bear little resemblance to the current one. Their dream is for an interactive museum that showcases research being done in and around Tampa Bay.
The split from the Pier is touted as temporary, though it could become permanent if officials don't like what the city chooses for a new Pier.
The Pier Aquarium has been the Pier's main attraction since opening in 1988, but it has been struggling with worsening attendance, much like the Pier itself.
The city will spend about $1.4 million this year to keep the Pier running, which is less than in previous years but still more than the city would like. In 2012, the city will have access to $50 million set aside to remake the deteriorating Pier, though infrastructure repairs could eat up most of that money.
A task force has come up with several proposals, which range from leaving the iconic inverted pyramid, to shortening and narrowing the approach and putting a new main building on land.
The task force will meet Monday to finalize its recommendations before presenting them to the City Council on June 10.
The Pier Aquarium's favored option is the last one, which places a building at the water's edge.
"I really think a Marine Discovery Center needs to be by water," Rutherford said.
A building on land solves the aquarium's current problems with accessibility while keeping the museum close to the subject it studies. It would also provide a chance to design a building specifically for the museum.
The task force has been presented with plans for the Marine Discovery Center, but it won't be recommending occupants it would like to see in the pier, Downtown Enterprise Facilities Director Chris Ballestra said. That will be up to the City Council.
Rutherford said both locations the aquarium is considering would allow room for it to expand permanently should the city decide to go with one of the other options.
"Ultimately we'd love to come back to the Pier as the main attraction," Rutherford said.
The task force has said the Pier should keep a family focus, with entertainment options and iconic imagery that is tied in with the waterfront.
That could fit well with the Marine Discovery Center, which is aiming for family audiences much the same as the aquarium now reaches.
As planned, the Marine Discovery Center would combine the resources of 12 research agencies in the Tampa Bay area, including the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science.
The idea is to take research being done by bay area scientists and present it in an easy-to-understand way. Everything would fit into three broad themes: movement, change and behavior.
A shark exhibit would feature the research being brought in by USF scientists, while an exotic fish tank would highlight the problems with nonnative species locally. An exhibit on water use would show visitors their daily consumption compared with other museum visitors.
Such a museum would position St. Petersburg at the center of marine research and has the potential for creating a large economic impact, Rutherford said.
There aren't really any other science museums that give visitors a chance to interact with real data from research projects, Rutherford said, adding, "We're more than just an aquarium."