Fresh from the box office success of Dolphin Tale and looking toward the sequel, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is pursuing ambitious plans for an expensive new facility on city-owned land. A key step could come today when the City Council considers an agreement with the aquarium. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos was right to raise concerns about the initial proposal and insist on more financial protection for taxpayers, and late Tuesday aquarium supporters significantly sweetened the deal.
Clearwater is enjoying something of a tourist and cultural revival. In the wake of the success of Dolphin Tale, which grossed $82 million worldwide, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium experienced a healthy spike in attendance with 750,000 visitors last year, 100,000 more than Tampa's Florida Aquarium. Later this year, the downtown historic Capitol Theatre, which is managed by Ruth Eckerd Hall Inc., will reopen after extensive renovations. It announced an impressive lineup of concerts and events this week. As well, the Water's Edge downtown condominium is full and plenty of boats are tied up in the downtown marina. The proposed $160 million aquarium on land now occupied by City Hall would be a major attraction and further dilute the presence of the Church of Scientology, which has had a firm grip on downtown Clearwater for decades.
But at what cost?
Clearwater voters will be asked to approve leasing the City Hall property to the aquarium in a Nov. 5 referendum. But Cretekos raised legitimate concerns over a proposed lease agreement. The memorandum of understanding released this week called for the aquarium to pay the city $7.5 million raised by a 50-cent surcharge on tickets. The money would be used for a new City Hall. Once that threshold was reached — it would take about 15 years, if the aquarium's attendance estimates are borne out — the aquarium would pay the city $150,000 a year for the remainder of the long-term lease on the land. To answer Cretekos' concerns, the aquarium agreed to pay interest on the unpaid balance of the first $7.5 million and to increase the annual rent payment after that total is reached to $250,000.
That's much better, but the bigger question is the viability of the aquarium project itself. Major private fundraising has yet to get under way publicly, the attendance projections appear optimistic, and the scale of the project is particularly large for a city where voters have been skeptical of grand development proposals. The aquarium also wants part of the Pinellas County resort tax money when the Tropicana Field bonds are paid off, and the competition for that revenue is stiff.
If voters approved the lease, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium would have until August 2016 to raise the balance of the money to proceed with construction or the agreement would be voided. Cretekos remains supportive and says the aquarium "could be a game-changer'' for Clearwater. But first the mayor and the City Council must ensure that any agreement with the aquarium would fairly compensate taxpayers for giving up a very valuable spot on the downtown bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor.