Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sparring with yard signs, mailers over a downtown Clearwater aquarium

CLEARWATER — You've probably seen the white and blue yard signs with the leaping dolphin urging a "Yes" vote for a new downtown aquarium. Or maybe a flier has landed in your mailbox with another airborne dolphin touting the economic development, new jobs and free city hall that approval would bring.

Perhaps you've received an orange-bordered mailer showing gridlocked cars and a laundry list of reasons to vote "No" on Nov. 5, including beastly traffic and wasted taxpayer dollars.

The fliers are from political action committees that support or oppose the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's proposal to lease waterfront property where City Hall now stands for 60 years and build a three-story, $160 million aquarium there.

With just over four weeks to go until Election Day, these groups are taking the battle to mailboxes, lawns and corner lots.

A debate Tuesday on Sand Key is highly anticipated by both sides. And radio spots, perhaps even a public service announcement cut by one of the movie stars due in town to film a Dolphin Tale sequel, might be rolled out before the first Tuesday in November.

Even an unsigned letter with a Photoshopped city seal has popped up. Addressed to the Tampa Bay Times, Mayor George Cretekos and CMA opponents, the letter alleges city corruption and malfeasance.

Amid the grinding of election gears are cries of inaccuracies, omissions and hidden designs.

The claim by the Friends of CMA PAC that an aquarium "makes sure that Clearwater's city-owned waterfront land is always reserved for the public" rankles Joe Corvino, who is leading the effort to defeat the referendum.

"If it wasn't so disingenuous, it would be funny," Corvino said. "A private facility that I have to buy a ticket to enter?"

Aquarium officials say the grounds around the 200,000-square-foot facility would be landscaped and open to the public.

Meanwhile, an anti-aquarium PAC — Friends of Clearwater— claims that the amendment to the City Charter giving the city the right to begin negotiating a 60-year lease "will suspend citizen safeguards that currently restrict selling or leasing public land to a private business."

That's simply untrue, responds Frank Dame, the aquarium's chief operating officer.

The charter change would only affect the City Hall property and wouldn't apply to any other city-owned property, he said. City attorney Pam Akin has repeatedly stated the same in numerous public meetings.

"It relates only to land that we're talking about. The remainder of land on the bluff stays safeguarded," Dame said. "I have to say (Friends of Clearwater's) mailer is inaccurate."

Corvino says that the flier is referring to the charter amendment and land that's up for a vote.

"I don't see how anyone could read it any differently," he said.

The opponents' mailers claim that "taxpayers could be on the hook" for millions of dollars if Clearwater Marine Aquarium defaults on its loans. This also angers Dame.

The tentative agreement between the City Council and Clearwater Marine Aquarium approved in August explicitly absolves the city of any financial obligation if the aquarium fails. Creditors have two choices: They can bring in new management or they can sell off its contents, demolish the aquarium and give the city back the land.

Corvino is skeptical of the agreement, called a memorandum of understanding. He notes that it is legally nonbinding. He believes the City Council would never allow the aquarium to fail, predicting that eventually city money will subsidize its operations much like Tampa currently does with the Florida Aquarium.

It's naive to think otherwise, he says.

"Up North where I'm from, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's probably a damn duck," said Corvino, who moved a few years ago from New Jersey to Water's Edge, a downtown condo tower that would be next door to the new aquarium.

Traffic is another point of contention. A city traffic study in August found that several downtown intersections would be clogged at peak hours if the aquarium draws at least 2 million visitors a year.

Friends of Clearwater's mailer has a picture of gridlock.

Dame says the group is "talking out both sides of their mouths."

"They can't say we're not going to be successful and have a traffic problem. Either we'll be successful and have a traffic problem or we won't," Dame said.

And there are ways to deal with increased traffic, he said. The city has the option to extend the old Pierce Boulevard right of way to Drew Street to alleviate some of the volume. And the downtown location would take thousands of cars off Memorial Causeway that travel to the aquarium's current location on Island Estates.

Nonsense, said Corvino.

He speculates that the current aquarium traffic on the causeway is coming east from the beach and never reaches downtown. And the aquarium could go under financially and remain open — just look across the bay at the Florida Aquarium, he said.

Fliers aren't the only weapons being used in the referendum battle. Yard signs are popping up all over the city.

Friends of CMA have 500 and have planted about 300 around town, said Nick DiCeglie, the PAC's chairman.

Corvino said Friends of Clearwater have distributed between 50 and 100 signs in a first wave, with more to come.

Financial reports from the PACs are due Oct. 10 in the City Clerk's office. A fundraising campaign kick-off earlier this month went well for CMA backers. Corvino said his group, which has had a change of leadership recently, will be heavily outspent.

"We're like David versus Goliath," he said.

Dame said the goal of aquarium supporters is to set the record straight.

"Quite frankly, there is a lot of inaccuracy out in the community," DiCeglie said. "We just want to clarify that."

Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

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