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As vote on Clearwater aquarium nears, everyone agrees: Vote will be close

The $160.5 million aquarium would be built on the Clearwater City Hall property.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

The $160.5 million aquarium would be built on the Clearwater City Hall property.

CLEARWATER — Days before a decisive vote on the future of the city's waterfront, both opponents and supporters of a proposed $160.5 million aquarium say they've taken their best shot.

"I feel like we've done a reasonable job of making our case and informing the public of the pros and cons," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, a board member at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Hibbard alone has made about 50 presentations around the city since spring, he said, and other aquarium officials also have done presentations. Pro-aquarium groups have mailed about a half-dozen fliers to voters in support of the idea.

The referendum asks voters to approve changes to the city charter that would allow city officials and CMA to negotiate a 60-year lease of the city-owned waterfront property now occupied by City Hall. CMA wants to build a 200,000-square-foot aquarium there and argues that the facility would spur economic development in a careworn downtown by giving tourists and local residents a reason to venture there.

In a non-binding memorandum of understanding, CMA agreed to pay the city $7.5 million for a new City Hall as well as $250,000 annual lease payments once the $7.5 million is raised. It will also pay $300,000 to replace four municipal tennis courts on the waterfront.

Tom Petersen, who filed a lawsuit to stop the referendum and is a key member of the opposition, doesn't have any regrets either as the campaign ends.

"We have done what we set out to do," he said.

Petersen said Friends of Clearwater, a political action committee formed to oppose the ballot question, has mailed out two fliers labeling the aquarium proposal as a "waterfront giveaway," paid for newspaper advertisements, and funded an airplane-towed banner over Coachman Park during the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

All those efforts have stuck close to the Friends' message: CMA's plan is too risky and the city hasn't properly vetted it.

The pro- and anti-PACs raised almost equal amounts of money through September. October's fundraising totals won't be due until five days after the referendum.

Rumors abound about last-minute cash infusions. One making the rounds last week was that Pinch-A-Penny founder Fred Thomas was paying for a full-page advertisement in the Tampa Bay Times.

Thomas said he couldn't remember if he had given money to Friends of Clearwater because he gives "so much money to so many people."

Many observers think the referendum has already been decided, thanks to the popularity of the mail-in ballot. As of Friday, 11,822, or 42 percent, of the requested 28,336 mail ballots had been returned, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections.

Asked to evaluate his adversaries, Petersen gave the CMA forces credit for a "top-quality PR machine" and not "degenerating into name-calling."

For his part, Hibbard said "misinformation" spread by Friends of Clearwater has done some damage.

"I think they've undoubtedly hurt (with their)'Waterfront Giveaway' and neighborhood scare," he said, referring to the Friends of Clearwater claim in mailers that the lease of the property to CMA would be a "waterfront giveaway" and would mean no more city money for neighborhoods.

Another note persistently rung by opponents: CMA is putting the rescue and rehab of marine life on the back burner in its pursuit of tourist dollars.

"It's like they got stars in their eyes from Hollywood," Petersen said. "Opening a downtown facility is going into the tourist entertainment business."

Filming has started for a sequel to the hit 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, loosely based on the story of the aquarium's dolphin Winter, who lost her tail in a crab trap and was taught by CMA to swim with a prosthetic tail.

The movie only helps CMA promote and expand its primary mission of the three Rs — rescue, rehab and release — by creating an international brand, said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO. Any suggestion to the contrary is "ludricrous," he said.

"Our opponents don't understand our mission. It's also education and bringing inspiring moments to kids and wounded soldiers," Yates said.

Raising the profile of the aquarium will help fund it, particularly through "crowd-sourcing" strategies, he said.

Currently, Winter has attracted at least 650,000 followers on Facebook. The sequel will significantly boost that number. Millions could be raised by reaching out through social media for small donations — perhaps $50 or so, Yates said.

Aquarium supporters acknowledge that the latest attempt to clear the high hurdle of building on the downtown bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor has been challenging. The city charter requires a referendum before any development of public land along the bluff.

An ambitious proposal in 2000 to expand Coachman Park failed. So did a scaled-back proposal in 2004. Three years later, a modest plan for a small marina on the waterfront squeaked through by a few hundred votes.

There is a good reason for that resistance, said Howard Warshauer, a longtime neighborhood activist who opposes the aquarium plan. The fact that the waterfront property is protected by the charter shows a "strong constituency" wanted that land to remain in public hands.

A better route for success, he said, would have been to get more public input. That was done in West Palm Beach, where Warshauer served on the City Council in the 1990s. A major redevelopment effort there called City Place had a public bidding process and a citizen review council before the city took any action.

"They're doing it backward," said Warshauer, vice president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition. "They are acting as agents for CMA instead of the people's representatives."

The City Council unanimously approved the memorandum of understanding with CMA in August. Council members have said that the public has had ample time to learn about the issue. And they point out that a successful vote only allows CMA to try to finance the project. If it doesn't come up with the financing by August 2016, the agreement dissolves.

Once voters understand that point, Hibbard said, they usually support the proposal.

One thing on which everyone agrees: The vote will be close.

"I'll be scared as a cat until the final tally comes in," Hibbard said.

Added Petersen: "We have no idea how the vote is going to go."

Charlie Frago can be reached at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

As vote on Clearwater aquarium nears, everyone agrees: Vote will be close 11/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 7:16pm]

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