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Tampa: Clearwater aquarium's biggest rival may be its ambition

If the Clearwater Marine Aquarium builds a new $160 million home in downtown Clearwater, Tampa officials say they won't feel threatened even though their city owns the Florida Aquarium and spends up to $7 million a year on it.

"The more people we draw to the bay area the better, and the more options we give them the better," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Friday. "If Clearwater succeeds, then Tampa succeeds. And so while it may appear to be direct competition, it may also be complementary."

That said, Buckhorn did have some advice for his counterparts in Clearwater.

"Take the consultant's number and cut it in half," he said. "It's not going to be what they say it's going to be."

Buckhorn has been around Tampa City Hall long enough to have watched the Florida Aquarium go from dream to nightmare and back again. Ironically, in the 1980s it was first proposed for Clearwater as an expansion of what later grew into the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. After running into opposition there, it was built in downtown Tampa, opening to fanfare in 1995.

From virtually the first day, it was clear the projections of 1.8 million ticket-buying customers a year were wildly optimistic. The crowds didn't show, and the aquarium lost money. Early on, it laid off staff.

Today the Florida Aquarium has secured its finances, but attendance is 650,000 a year. Meanwhile, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is riding a burst of popularity from Winter the dolphin. Attendance at the aquarium and its separate movie prop exhibit, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, reached about 750,000 last year.

If a new 200,000-square-foot aquarium is built on the Clearwater Harbor bluff, as the Tampa Bay Times reported Friday, its supporters expect it to draw a whopping 2.5 million visitors its first year — equal to or greater than attendance at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and more than the 1.8 million annual visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

After spending the past decade building up the Florida Aquarium's finances, CEO Thom Stork says the economics of the Clearwater project concern him.

"We've known Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a long time," Stork said. "We've actually had working relationships over the years, and respect what they do. That being said, we just don't see this venture being economically feasible."

Clearwater aquarium officials are confident. Their aquarium would draw beach visitors and has a famous attraction in Winter the dolphin.

"We wish the Florida Aquarium well. We partner with them in some ways," said David Yates, the Clearwater aquarium's CEO. "The Florida Aquarium has one thing. They have a great building. They don't have the global awareness that we have built with Dolphin Tale," the hit movie starring Winter.

Yates said they based their projections on the first-year attendance figures for several other new aquariums that have opened around the country.

"In our analysis, we have accounted for the Florida Aquarium's presence in our market," he said.

Officials also think a new state-of-the-art attraction paired with Winter's story could lure more Orlando tourists who would like to add a beach getaway to their vacation. Those tourists often make a "beach decision" — whether to drive to Florida's east coast or its Gulf Coast, said Frank Dame, the Clearwater aquarium's executive vice president.

Many of them are families with children who have seen Dolphin Tale, he said. Those tourists wouldn't be hopping on Interstate 4 to travel to Tampa's Channel District, home of the Florida Aquarium.

"That is not a tourist area over there," said former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is on the aquarium's board of directors. "We've got a white sand beach here."

To build its new facility, the Clearwater aquarium hopes to raise $35 million to $85 million from donors and corporate partners, and $35 million to $60 million from its city, county, state and federal governments.

Aquarium officials would like some of that to come from Pinellas County's 5 cent hotel bed tax, which generates about $25 million a year, about a third of it from Clearwater.

There's stiff competition for that bed tax money, which pays for tourism advertising, beach renourishment and debt payments on Tropicana Field and baseball stadiums in Clearwater and Dunedin.

Most of the Trop's construction bonds will be paid off in 2015. After that, bed taxes currently pledged to the Trop could end up going toward a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium, a new aquarium or other projects.

Meanwhile, Stork isn't predicting whether having another modern aquarium 25 miles and 45 minutes away would help or hurt the Florida Aquarium, though he acknowledges, "you would have to think that it would have some impact on our business."

Last year, the Florida Aquarium launched a $15 million fundraising campaign, and so far it has raised $8.5 million. That money will pay for a changing exhibit hall, more classroom space — the aquarium sees 100,000 students a year and wants to do twice that — and a ballroom (it hosted 250 events).

In the long run, those improvements should put it on a path to create exhibits for big marine mammals or sharks.

"We do want to do a dolphin exhibit," he said. "Our guests tell us all the time that they would love to see a dolphin habitat. They don't want to see a dolphin show. They want to see a dolphin habitat."

And while Tampa officials are playing down the idea of cross-bay rivalry, the air of competition already seems sharper.

On Friday morning, the day the news about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium came out, Stork said he got a call from a donor who said, "I read that story. I'm committing a half million dollars."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Comparing the two

Florida Aquarium in Tampa

Size: 152,000 square feet

Visitors: 650,000 last year

Opened: 1995

Cost: $97 million

Proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Size: 200,000 square feet

To open: 2017

Cost: $160 million

Tampa: Clearwater aquarium's biggest rival may be its ambition 03/01/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 2:58pm]

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