The rehabilitation mission that has always made the Clearwater Marine Aquarium such a special place, even as it struggled in some years in a renovated sewage treatment plant, is now front and center in plans for a proposed new facility downtown. That's encouraging, and it has the added benefit of being less expensive than the original vision, significantly increasing the chance of success. The goal should be to create a quality destination in Tampa Bay that also makes financial sense.
Aquarium officials, who revealed updated plans Friday, are clearly hoping to capitalize on next month's release of Dolphin Tale 2, the sequel to the film that introduced the world to the amazing story of the aquarium's tailless dolphin, Winter. The hope is that at least $24 million of the proposed $68 million for the facility will come from private donations — with at least $16 million raised by the time the aquarium needs to break ground on the new site to comply with the time frame voters approved in November. Voters approved letting the aquarium, now housed on Island Estates, have a lease on the downtown land where City Hall stands if the project is financed by Aug. 1, 2016.
Still unclear is where the rest of the money will come from. Organizers are hoping to tap county hotel bed tax dollars and other public financing mechanisms, including property tax increment financing, for most of it. The aquarium's odds of winning some taxpayer help are far greater if organizers show significant private donations on hand before asking for public dollars.
What is encouraging is that aquarium advocates have done exactly what they pledged to do after November's vote: Right-size what was clearly a too-ambitious plan for a $160 million facility. The new plan still calls for a 200,000-square-foot facility, but now one-quarter of that footprint is dedicated to outdoor exhibits, reducing costs and taking advantage of Florida's temperate weather most of the year. Gone is the 2,000-seat amphitheater that had anticipated dolphin shows — a prospect that in the long term risked falling under the same scrutiny as SeaWorld has in recent months for its killer whale shows.
The top floor of the facility will feature banquet space large enough to seat 700 for a sit-down meal — the kind of space that North Pinellas has been lacking in recent years with the close of the city's Harborview Center and the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair. The banquet hall, which will be dividable, is designed to take advantage of both the aquarium's visual assets — such as a two-story coral reef tank — and the extraordinary water views from Clearwater's bluff. The resulting space is a promising revenue generator for the nonprofit aquarium. The new design also moved outdoor public spaces to the south side of the building, providing more buffer for downtown residents in neighboring condominium towers.
This is still a project with much uncertainty. But with more reasonable ambitions it looks far more pragmatic. The next step is to capitalize on next month's movie release and find significant private donations for a vision that could transform downtown Clearwater.