CLEARWATER— PAC money has started to bolster the battle lines over a proposed downtown aquarium.
Two political action committees have formed — one in support of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's $160.5 million project and one opposed.
Voters will decide in a Nov. 5 referendum if the city can enter into negotiations for the aquarium to lease prime waterfront real estate where City Hall now stands for the new facility.
The issue will be the only item on the ballot and both sides say their lobbying efforts will target the 8,000 or so "super-voters" in Clearwater — residents who have voted in three of the last five elections.
A PAC called Friends of CMA registered with the city clerk's office in late April. By the end of June, it had raised $14,600, although chairman Nick DiCeglie, also chairman of the board of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that the group now has about $20,000 in the bank.
The chamber-backed group supports the aquarium's proposal for a new home for Winter the Dolphin, star of the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale.
"This could be the spark that downtown Clearwater has needed for literally decades. It has been a huge struggle for any successful project to be able to be built and developed in downtown Clearwater. This is a game-changer," DiCeglie said.
A PAC that opposes the project, calling itself Friends of Clearwater Inc., registered with the clerk's office on Aug. 21. It is chaired by Sarah Donovan, a resident of the Water's Edge condo next door to the City Hall property where the aquarium wants to build.
While the group opposes the site, it wants to make clear that it supports CMA's mission, Donovan said Thursday. The City Hall property is just the wrong spot.
"It's essentially giving away the last piece of city-owned waterfront property for nothing," Donovan said.
A tentative agreement approved earlier this month by the City Council would require CMA to pay the city up to $7.5 million from a 50-cent surcharge on every ticket sold. The money, plus interest, would be used to build a new city hall.
After that total is reached, the aquarium would make a yearly payment of $250,000 to the city for the balance of the 60-year lease.
Donovan said her group — which has about 30 volunteers — is concerned that CMA's projected attendance of up to 2.5 million visitors in the first year is too optimistic.
As one of the only markets in the country that would have two major aquariums, it could take years for CMA to generate the $7.5 million payment to the city, Donovan said. The Florida Aquarium in Tampa had 645,840 visitors last year and receives a city subsidy. Donovan says Clearwater taxpayers could eventually end up propping up a downtown aquarium if it fails to meet its attendance estimates.
"There is no guarantee that the attendance or even funding can be achieved," said Donovan, who is vice president of business development for a management consulting firm.
The memorandum of understanding between the city and aquarium states that if the aquarium can't line up money to build by Aug. 1, 2016, the agreement dissolves. CMA officials have said that its "break-even" attendance to make the project work is around 975,000 visitors a year.
DiCeglie said his group's aim is to "clarify the misinformation" being spread about the project's viability.
The numbers work, he said, and voters are starting to agree.
"We're starting to see a lot of people say 'This does make sense, the numbers aren't as confusing as I originally thought,' " said DiCeglie, who owns a garbage and recycling company and lives in Indian Rocks Beach.
The business community is strongly supportive, he said. The key will be to reach voters in Countryside and super voters around the city, he said.
Both groups are planning mailings. Both may run radio ads. Much will depend on the money they raise.
Donovan wouldn't say how much her group has raised, but said they've received pledges from about 75 people. DiCeglie's group has received donations from about two dozen people.
Both groups will have to report their fundraising totals to the city clerk by Oct. 10 for money raised through the end of September.
How much a new aquarium will jump-start a moribund downtown is a clear dividing line.
Donovan said an aquarium might draw tourists, but they'll spend their money inside its doors and then head back to Clearwater Beach. She said her group will work with the city to develop a viable plan for downtown development.
"We'd love to see a hustling and bustling downtown," she said.
Along with a refurbished Capitol Theatre, scheduled to open in December, the aquarium is the answer to a decades-long riddle to inject life into downtown, DiCeglie said.
"This what downtown Clearwater has been looking for, for a really, really long time," he said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.