The best argument the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has in promoting its vision for a first-class home on the city's bluff is the nonprofit's success in capitalizing on its Hollywood fame. What the aquarium has accomplished in a rehabilitated sewage treatment plant in Island Estates in the two years since the story of Winter, the tail-less dolphin, was immortalized on the big screen is remarkable.
Now the aquarium's leaders are asking city voters to gamble they can do even more remarkable things for the local economy by building a state-of-the-art facility downtown in the wake of a sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, due next year. There are reasons to be skeptical, including the need for private fundraising that would be unprecedented for Tampa Bay and a heavy dependence on one mammal's enduring popularity. But the Nov. 5 vote is not a final vote on whether the new aquarium will be built. It is a vote that would allow the aquarium to pursue a 60-year lease with the city for the current site of City Hall — if it can clear high financing hurdles by August 2016. City voters should say yes to the referendum to give this grand dream the time to become real or more realistic in size.
The aquarium plan for downtown Clearwater could be a game-changer. It anticipates a 200,000-square-foot, three-level facility with a price tag of up to $160 million. Aquarium officials project more than 2 million people a year would come to view aquarium exhibits and sit in the outdoor covered stadium overlooking a dolphin pool and perched on the bluff above Clearwater Harbor. (The organization would keep its Island Estates facility as a marine animal hospital.)
In exchange for providing a 60-year lease for the land, the city would receive up to $7.5 million from ticket sales to build a new City Hall at an undetermined site, and eventually, $250,000 in lease payments annually for the life of the lease. The city would face no obligation for anticipated debt or operational expenses. But if the aquarium has not raised the required construction money from private and public sources by August 2016, the entire deal would be off.
The most promising news is that the project's ambitions can be downsized to better match economic reality if it comes to that. The more significant number for voters may be about 975,000, which officials say is the attendance needed for the new facility to break even. That's roughly 225,000 more than visited the aquarium's cramped Island Estates facility in 2012 and seems more plausible than 2 million, particularly in a region with other aquariums. And officials say they are hopeful final plans will result in significantly lower construction costs, possibly to less than $100 million. That is more palatable, as well.
Financing is unsure. No major donors have stepped forward yet, and current documents call for seeking up to $60 million from local, state and federal government sources. The Pinellas County Commission would be asked to extend the city's tax-increment financing district and to give the project a significant share of the bed tax dollars that become available after Tropicana Field's debt is paid off in 2015. The aquarium will need to make a good case to the commission before it is guaranteed any bed tax money, and it will have a far stronger argument if it shows up with significant private donations in hand. Otherwise, this plan looks a lot less attractive if it would have to be financed primarily by public dollars.
Clearwater voters have a history of looking skeptically at artist renderings of grand developments and of closely protecting the downtown waterfront. They should be just as vigorous in their examination of this project. But this is an opportunity to transform a still-struggling downtown, and it is led by an established institution with strong roots in the community and a unique story with worldwide appeal. It is a call to continue moving forward, not a final decision. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium deserves a chance to pursue and fine-tune an ambitious vision that has the potential to transform the city and add to the region's attractiveness as a tourist destination. On the Nov. 5 Clearwater referendum, the Tampa Bay Times recommends city voters say yes.