CLEARWATER — Voters gave the Clearwater Marine Aquarium a clear green light Tuesday to start raising more than $160 million for a new aquarium on the downtown waterfront, potentially luring legions of tourists and recasting the moribund section of Tampa Bay's third-largest city.
Final but unofficial results showed residents voted 55 percent to 45 percent to change Clearwater's charter so the city can lease the property where City Hall now stands to the aquarium.
The unofficial tally was 9,429 in favor and 7,754 opposed.
"We won by a touchdown and a field goal," former Mayor Frank Hibbard said at the supporters' victory party next to the current aquarium on Island Estates. He said voters understood that a yes vote was "giving us a chance" to raise the money for a new home for Winter the dolphin.
"Now the heavy lifting starts," said Hibbard, who led the aquarium effort.
Still unanswered: Can the Tampa Bay market support two major aquariums?
"Any effort to increase awareness of our oceans is a good thing," said Thom Stork, president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. "We wish them the best."
David Yates, CEO of the Clearwater facility, said the two aquariums can jointly promote aquarium-based tourism.
"If we do this right, it raises all the boats," Yates said.
Several current and former elected officials dubbed the win historic, reversing a previous pattern of defeats of waterfront development proposals.
"Voters said this city is worth living in, working in and it's worth fighting for," said Brian Aungst Jr., a key figure in the winning effort.
A largely unspoken theme during the campaign was that a thriving aquarium downtown might dilute the presence of the Church of Scientology, which has an extensive campus downtown.
CMA hopes to cobble together corporate and private donations and seek county hotel bed taxes, millions in tax-increment financing and federal tax credits.
Under a memorandum of understanding between the city and aquarium, if CMA can't obtain financing for the project by Aug. 1, 2016, the deal will dissolve.
If it goes forward, the nearly half-century-old Clearwater City Hall will be demolished. The aquarium will pay up to $7.5 million from ticket sales for construction of a new city hall, followed by annual $250,000 payments for the remainder of the lease.
Preliminary plans floated by aquarium officials show a three-story aquarium with an outdoor dolphin stadium, a multistory coral reef display, a 4-D movie theater and other exhibits and amenities.
Tom Petersen, an opponent of the proposed aquarium, said that a lawsuit he filed to overturn the referendum has a hearing before a judge later this month. He and other opponents who gathered Tuesday night in the Water's Edge condo tower next door to the proposed aquarium site plan to keep pressuring city leaders in the months ahead.
Petersen said the council needs to remember that 45 percent of voters don't like the project.
"There is an election in March," Petersen added. Two council seats are up for grabs.
"We fought the good fight," said Joe Corvino, an opposition leader. "Now the game gets real."
Voters clearly responded to the well-organized effort by aquarium leaders to obtain a yes vote. Hibbard, Yates and aquarium COO Frank Dame made dozens of presentations to neighborhood groups around the city.
In the end, voters approved the referendum in all but three of the city's 40 precincts.
Opponents had dubbed the effort a waterfront giveaway that would drain city resources for neighborhood projects. Hibbard said those charges weren't true, "and voters saw through it."
Resident Michael Sauble, 53, was conflicted until just before he cast his yes vote. His wife is a CMA volunteer, but he's a self-described fiscal conservative who worried that taxpayers might end up having to help support a new aquarium.
In the end, Sauble said he thought CMA deserved a chance.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.
CORRECTION: Thom Stork is president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online misspelled his name.