Clearwater City Council members are betting that a major motion picture about a little dolphin with a prosthetic tail will bring fame and streams of fans to the city and the private, nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium where the dolphin lives. Thursday they will vote on whether to put money behind that bet: $750,000 in public funds for the aquarium to purchase adjacent property for parking. The City Council is braced for a barrage of opposition to the proposal, but the grant has the potential to pay off for Clearwater's biggest industry, tourism, at a time when growing that industry is vital. The council should approve the grant.
Clearwater Beach is the city's biggest tourist attraction, but in a second tier of tourist destinations, the aquarium is one of the most important. Housed in a former sewage treatment plant the city deeded to it more than two decades ago, the aquarium is both a marine animal rescue and rehabilitation hospital and an entertainment venue. Among the otters, sea turtles, stingrays and dolphins that live there permanently, the most famous is Winter, the tail-less dolphin.
Winter was found tightly bound in a crab trap line off the coast of Cape Canaveral in the winter of 2006. Her tail was destroyed and she was desperately ill, but the aquarium staff nursed her back to health and made her a permanent resident. An orthotics company that heard Winter's story later invented a unique prosthetic tail for her — an invention that contributed to development of new artificial limbs for wounded U.S. troops.
Winter doesn't do tricks like the aquarium's other dolphins, and visitors may get only a short glimpse of her during scheduled dolphin shows. Yet visitors come from all over the world — many of them amputees or sick children — to bond privately with the dolphin.
Winter's story has inspired a movie that will star Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson and is scheduled for release next year. Filming is under way in Clearwater and it has been a boon to the local economy, but the real bonanza is expected after the movie is released. Aquarium attendance already had increased by 30 percent each of the last three years, but officials predict it will double or triple because of the movie.
That precipitated a crisis, because the aquarium doesn't have enough parking, in part because the movie production company built a permanent 80,000-gallon tank on part of the aquarium's parking lot.
Aquarium officials long have wanted to buy an adjoining 1.5-acre waterfront lot for future expansion, but the owners only recently were willing to sell. The aquarium has negotiated a deal to purchase the property for $3.1 million, but the owners' Dec. 1 deadline for closing on the deal, combined with the existence of another bidder with a backup contract, left the aquarium without enough time to raise all the money it needed.
The aquarium has asked the city to provide a grant of $750,000, which, with other funds, will enable the aquarium to purchase the land. Initially, the vacant property would be used for surface parking. But eventually, the property could figure prominently in plans to significantly expand the aquarium and its mission.
At a work session Monday, at least four of the five City Council members seemed ready to approve the grant when they meet again at 6 p.m. Thursday in City Hall. But they are divided on where to get the money. Council members George Cretekos and Paul Gibson want to pull it from general reserves. Mayor Frank Hibbard and councilman John Doran want to use Penny for Pinellas sales tax dollars available only for capital projects.
Donating money to the aquarium for a property purchase was not on the list of proposed projects when voters approved the extension of the penny tax. Substituting the new project would be unfair when there is so little opportunity to inform residents and gauge their reaction. Plus, penny funds can be used only for public projects. Using the penny for the private aquarium would either require the city to own part of the property — something officials say they don't want to take on — or would require elaborate manipulation of the grant process to make it legal. That's not appropriate.
Critics may argue that this is no time for the city to be handing public money to a private nonprofit, no matter the source of the funds. But there are several good reasons to do this now:
• It is essential for the aquarium to acquire the adjoining property to continue its ambitious expansion plans, and the sudden threat of the property being sold to someone else requires immediate action.
• The city's general reserve fund is in good shape thanks to the city's budget reductions during the last four years.
• Without additional parking, aquarium visitors likely will park in the surrounding Island Estates neighborhood and a nearby shopping center, creating headaches for the neighbors, the aquarium and the city.
The best reason to approve the grant is that it would be a one-time contribution to a successful and growing tourist destination which, because of its location along the causeway between downtown and the beach, has the potential to boost tourist traffic in both places. That's a good investment to make, especially in this economy.