The Clearwater City Council is understandably excited about an ambitious proposal to build a signature aquarium in downtown Clearwater and has scheduled a November voter referendum. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's grand vision could be a landmark attraction overlooking the waterfront, drawing crowds that would inject new life into downtown. But before voters decide the project's fate, there is much work to be done to ensure the public's interests are protected.
The Clearwater aquarium has been on a roll with Winter, the dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail and was featured in the popular movie Dolphin Tale. About 750,000 visitors toured the small aquarium near Clearwater Beach last year, about 100,000 more visitors than the Florida Aquarium drew in Tampa. The project's supporters are confident they can capitalize on the dolphin's popularity to raise millions and be the feature attraction in a much larger aquarium downtown. That is betting a lot on one dolphin, but they point out that Winter, at just 7 years old, has a long life expectancy and that the aquarium has another dolphin and other assets.
A $160 million, 200,000-square-foot aquarium would be built on public property where Clearwater City Hall now sits. The aquarium already has purchased nearby property for parking and, if voters approve, it would lease the City Hall property. But a number of significant steps have to be taken before the November referendum.
First, of course, comes the money. Clearwater is not expected to contribute any property tax revenue. But it would be helpful if the aquarium could raise significant private pledges of money before the referendum to demonstrate to voters this is a viable project. The aquarium also would like some county resort tax money, which will require a broader conversation. That portion of the resort tax now goes toward Tropicana Field bonds, which will be paid off in 2015. Former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a member of the aquarium's board of directors, points out that Clearwater generates 38 percent of the resort tax. But that resort tax money is going to be needed for baseball if there is any hope of building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Pinellas County.
Aquarium officials also have to convince voters that attendance projections are reasonable. The prediction of 2.5 million visitors in the first year sounds optimistic, and the Florida Aquarium never met its initial projections. Hibbard says the Clearwater aquarium would break even at 950,000 visitors, which may be more realistic.
Scheduling the referendum is the easy part. Now Clearwater officials need to negotiate a proposed lease and memorandum of understanding with the aquarium that protects taxpayers if the project falls through. If voters approve the referendum, for example, the aquarium should have a reasonable but limited time frame to raise money and begin construction or control of the City Hall property should revert back to the city.
A landmark Clearwater Marine Aquarium has the potential to redefine the city. But there is a lot to do before city voters decide whether to proceed.