Winter the tailless dolphin soon could have a new home. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium's surprising victory Tuesday in persuading voters to embrace an opportunity to build a state-of-the-art facility on the downtown bluff could be a game changer for Pinellas County's second-largest city. Now the challenge falls to city officials to negotiate a contract with the aquarium that protects taxpayers, and to the aquarium to fine-tune its plan to ensure success, including raising the private money to support it.
Tuesday's vote was only the second time in 13 years that city voters have agreed to alter the protected downtown waterfront. It came amid vigorous objections, particularly from some downtown residents who would be the aquarium's neighbors. But it also suggests voters saw value in expanding a significant tourist and educational asset with better facilities in a downtown dominated by the Church of Scientology. Also sweetening the deal: Tuesday's vote could provide needed financing to replace an outdated City Hall.
The first order of business for the aquarium, now located in a rehabilitated sewage treatment plant in Island Estates on Clearwater Beach, will be to determine whether it needs to downsize its ambitious plan to build a 200,000-square-foot, $160 million facility — even in light of a pending sequel to Dolphin Tale, the movie that made Winter a worldwide sensation. The current plan would require private fundraising that is unprecedented in Tampa Bay, and the facility's projection of 2 million visitors a year is optimistic in a region with another major aquarium.
The Clearwater aquarium already has engaged a consultant to assess the feasibility of its plan, and its board members have committed to adapt ambitions appropriately. That is an absolute necessity, particularly given the aquarium's plan to seek a portion of the county's bed tax that becomes available after Tropicana Field's debt is paid off in 2015. The aquarium will have a far stronger case for bed tax dollars if it shows up with significant private donations in hand and a business plan that isn't financed primarily by public dollars.
Wisely, the ballot language approved Tuesday is conditional. Nothing will go forward unless the aquarium can raise the money it needs for construction by August 2016. Only then are city officials authorized to sign a 60-year lease with the nonprofit in exchange for $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 chance for Winter to get a new home and build on the aquarium's amazing success increased Tuesday, but it is far from a done deal. Now it's up to aquarium and city leaders to build on voters' trust and fine-tune a plan that has the potential to be a tremendous asset to the city and the entire region.