A new Clearwater Marine Aquarium for downtown Clearwater
Aquarium wants chance to excel
On Nov. 5, the citizens of Clearwater will be voting to make a very important decision that could materially affect downtown Clearwater and our local economy.
A "no" vote means everything remains status quo, nothing changes.
A "yes" vote will provide the city and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) with an opportunity for a new downtown aquarium and stimulate expansion of business in the downtown core. It could also create family-oriented activities that may guide the way to a renewed and vibrant downtown.
A few years ago, negative thinking could have sunk a struggling CMA, which in 2006 had 78,000 visitors for the entire year. Instead, we were determined to find a way to not only survive, but flourish.
We put together a business plan and grew attendance by 30 percent a year, even before the movie Dolphin Tale. Winter the dolphin came to us barely hanging on to her life. Our animal care team could have given up on her but didn't. And she survived.
When a possible book deal was being discussed, some said it would never happen (there have been four books written about Winter and two more are in the works).
When talk of a possible movie surfaced, many said it was a pipe dream. Four years later, Dolphin Tale was released and now the sequel, Dolphin Tale 2, is being filmed. Currently, there are discussions with Alcon Entertainment about a possible TV series following the sequel.
Last year, we packed 750,000 guests into an aging, more than 50-year-old, 53,000-square-foot former sewer plant (Florida Aquarium had 200,000 square feet with 600,000 visitors in 2012). That was also a challenge, but our team did it with positive and creative thinking!
Opponents say CMA's project is risky and the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and aquarium is non-binding. But the City Council can't enter into a binding agreement until voters approve the use of the land and authorize the council to negotiate a lease with CMA.
The funds must be in place to build the aquarium by 2016 or the project is canceled. Creditors would have no recourse to taxpayers if CMA were to default.
A "yes" vote for the referendum merely authorizes the change of use for the land — only the land identified in the referendum — and authorizes the City Council to negotiate the final terms of the MOU in the best interest of the city. The MOU is nothing more than a letter of intent where, if major changes occur while hammering out details, either side has the opportunity to back out of the agreement.
There are many other hurdles to overcome. CMA is asking voters to give us a chance to try and raise the money to provide another opportunity to bring value to the community.
We have overcome much in the past and will succeed in the future with a positive outlook and perseverance. Please vote on Nov. 5.
Frank Dame, chief operating officer, Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Require details on aquarium plan
Our City Charter is the highest law of the city of Clearwater, just as our Constitution is the highest law of the country.
To change our City Charter, under normal circumstances, our city will appoint a group of citizens within every five years to review the charter. They will discuss any suggestions from the City Council or public that might require the charter to be amended, changed or altered by exception — such as the one being asked by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The suggestions are then forwarded to the council for public review and discussion. An ordinance is then prepared by staff, reviewed at public hearings and voted upon to go to referendum if necessary.
I served on the last two Clearwater charter review committees, which were made up of a large, diverse group of Clearwater citizens chosen by the council. The process works very well. Additionally, although rarely, the council may circumvent the committee process and bring changes forward directly by ordinance, which is reviewed by the public and then goes to referendum.
In 1982, the Clearwater City Charter was dramatically changed. Voters decided that the downtown waterfront public properties from Drew Street to Chestnut Street were so special that they should be protected by specific restrictions placed in the charter. This would ensure that the public had ample opportunity to review any developments or plans for these properties.
Normally when we change, amend or alter laws in the city, it is accepted practice to review the changes, get staff comments and then proceed to public hearings, where pertinent documents are dissected by the council, experts and the public. The charter, which is the highest law of the city, should be treated with the same respect.
So now we find ourselves in a peculiar position. We understand that the council is asking us to change the charter to allow the aquarium to lease for 60 years certain public properties on the downtown waterfront. We understand generally what they want to do, but all the specifics for staff, council and public review will come after we change the charter.
There is no need to rush to referendum for this to happen. Shouldn't we change the charter after all the plans, documents and details are reviewed by staff, council, Charter Review Committee and at public hearings?
Howard Warshauer, Clearwater