CLEARWATER — The long-simmering campaign for a new downtown aquarium has flared up recently with hot tempers and personal attacks at public meetings.
Voters will decide on Nov. 5 if the city can begin negotiations with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for a $160.5 million, three-story aquarium on city-owned waterfront property occupied by City Hall.
In recent weeks, mailers have stirred emotions high on both sides. This week, some of those feelings bubbled over at two neighborhood meetings.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson sparred with residents who were skeptical of the proposal Monday at a Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition meeting.
In a back-and-forth with anti-aquarium leader Joe Corvino about the project's financial details, Gibson questioned Corvino's command of the "numbers" and then kept going.
"You just moved here and you know very little about much of anything," Gibson said to Corvino.
"That's the problem. You talk and you don't listen."
Ric Ortega, a neighborhood activist, then dropped an age bomb on the 68-year-old Corvino.
"I just think it's going to be a shame because most of the people who are fighting this? By what I see? I don't think you're going to be around here in 20 years," Ortega, 48, said.
Later, Corvino addressed Ortega, who had already said he was sorry.
"I apologize to this gentleman if you got the wrong idea that I came here just so that I could pass away somewhere," he said.
Either "intentionally or unintentionally," aquarium opponents are damaging downtown's future, Ortega said. Downtown should be a pedestrian-friendly entertainment, retail and office district where people gather, and the aquarium will help build that atmosphere, he said.
Things came to a boil on Tuesday at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Sand Key where a large crowd turned out to listen to two hours of debate and Q &A on the referendum.
Former Mayor Frank Hibbard, leading the fight for a new aquarium, often characterizes aquarium opponents as mostly residents of Water's Edge and Pierce 100, luxury downtown condo towers that would neighbor the new facility.
Corvino, a Water's Edge resident who has led the opposition, says that opposition has spread to other parts of the city. He portrays Water's Edge residents as canaries in the coal mine, sounding early alarms about future danger.
"You continually say we are the nasty neighbors next door. I'd like to end that," Corvino said.
He had said no such thing, Hibbard replied.
"You have never heard come out of my mouth — 'nasty neighbors'— I have never said anything derogatory in that way. And I'd like you to stop using that," Hibbard said.
Corvino said he was dismayed by the personal jabs this week.
"If you can't dazzle with facts, then you personally attack," he said.
Hibbard said the CMA hasn't lobbed any personal attacks. That's a political death knell, he said.
"The difference between us and them is we're going to have to continue to operate in Clearwater," he said. "All of the information we disseminate has to be accurate."
Aside from the jabs and counter punches, substantive issues were debated.
CMA leaders and elected officials say that Corvino and other opponents deliberately misled voters by calling a non-binding tentative agreement between the city and CMA to lease the land for 60 years as an unvetted vague arrangement when its details — $7.5 million in payments for a new City Hall followed by $250,000 annual payments — are well known and won't change.
And the agreement will dissolve if CMA can't raise the funds by August 2016.
"What we are asking for is a chance," Hibbard said at Sand Key.
Aquarium opponents say the tentative agreement — called a memorandum of understanding — could be ripped up after the election, making its terms meaningless. They contend that projected attendance and proposed financing are wildly exaggerated. Eventually, they speculate that a financially strapped aquarium will require a city subsidy.
CMA supporters have also criticized aquarium opponents for saying the charter amendment to allow the city to lease City Hall land would apply to other tracts of city-owned land.
The charter change would only apply to City Hall land. It wouldn't affect any other property.
Ortega said the distrust and high emotions on the referendum are rooted in history. Failed referendums to revive downtown in 2000 and 2004 still linger.
"We all want the same thing. A vibrant downtown where people want to be," he said. "But downtown has to be for young people, too."
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.