Editor's note: The following letters address a referendum in Clearwater Tuesday that asks voters to allow the city to begin negotiations with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to lease the city-owned downtown property where City Hall stands to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for possible construction of a $160.5 million aquarium.
More housing before aquarium
Seven years ago, a substantial planning change realized the importance of housing to the revitalization of downtown Clearwater — to create a community neighborhood of residents who bring life to the community rather than visitors who come and go.
The Water's Edge condo was started. Along came Station Square and plans for the Mediterranean Village in the Park. Water's Edge and Station Square were completed, but others were stalled by the recession.
This interest in residential development led the city to propose a downtown marina to provide an amenity to the new community, a streetscape improvement for Cleveland Street and a renovation of the old Capitol Theatre — all additional assets to Coachman Park and the library for a living community.
The recession put the dampers on downtown revitalization.
Good decisions have been made in our city and the quality of life in Clearwater reflects that. Too often in bad times, decisions made are based on expediency rather than the right decision to accomplish a goal. The aquarium is one of those decisions. The city is asking you to vote yes or no to one short question that has great ramifications.
There are 30 whereases in the ordinance that authorizes and attempts to justify this referendum. One of these states that an aquarium "may assist in revitalizing downtown." An equal whereas could be an aquarium may be a detriment to the creation of housing that would be an advantage to solving the downtown problem.
We are now being asked to amend the city charter to negotiate with an entity to lease and build an aquarium on land the city charter protects from any use other than city needs. We are being asked to override the clause that stipulates any city property must be declared surplus to needs before being sold or leased. We are being asked to override the clause for accepting the highest bid offered. We are asked to override the clause that prohibits leases for more than 30 years.
Citizens like you and me worked years to limit the legislative powers of our elected officials. A vote no on the ballot will thank them for their effort. Let us give more time to complete the residential aspect before we jump into a new direction. Business services will follow quickly when residential housing succeeds.
Should such an exclusion for the charter, our constitution, be granted to one entity so casually? Vote no.
Lee Regulski, Clearwater
Proposal is home-grown
Tons of misinformation is circulating in fliers and emails by the "Friends of Clearwater" (a group urging a "no" vote in Tuesday's referendum).
Their main purpose is to stir up uncertainty, innuendo, suspicion and doubt. It is largely just fog to prevent citizens from seeing or understanding the truth in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium proposal and the process that is required for CMA to move forward.
Most large community investments in Clearwater are made by developers and businesses whose roots, lives and businesses are usually out of state.
This proposal is a "hometown" opportunity offered by hometown citizens who serve on the CMA board. They are some of the top, most successful business men and women in the city. They personally invest in our city throughout the year, every year, with their own generosity of both time and large amounts of money.
They have credibility. They live here, they work here and they serve here. They have strong reputations which they would not risk if the CMA proposal is not capable of being a success.
They look you in the eye, neighbor to neighbor, when they speak. Believe in them.
Nick Fritsch, Clearwater
Stepping on common sense
Most everyone loves a wonderful aquarium; they are marvels of engineering, education and family fun. "Wanting one" is on the list for many communities.
Wanting it so badly as to step on common sense, reasonable expectations, the best choice for the community and genuine examination of the facts surrounding the establishment of such an enterprise can spell long-term trouble and financial misery.
Now one of the most valuable pieces of developable land along the gulf coast appears to be headed in the direction of a big new house for recently famous Winter the dolphin and friends. There are big questions swimming around regarding the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
1) Is it reasonable to take the governing document for the city, the charter, and fiddle it around to have the city negotiate with a private user, before a feasibility study is issued to the voters? And with a former elected official on the CMA board negotiating with ex-cohorts at City Hall? Who's looking out for the citizens?
2) How can the promoters of this expect that this aquarium will sell more tickets than the very easily accessible (with lots of parking) Florida Aquarium in Tampa (an economic disaster that the citizens of Tampa have had to bail out to the tune of millions of dollars), close to lots of other attractions like the Channelside Center?
3) How is it that a parcel of real estate that is on the tax rolls valued at $16 million can be leased for the sum of $250,000 per year? Ridiculously cheap. Such a valuable piece of real estate should command at least 5 percent per year return on that asset — or $800,000 per year. It appears to be a giveaway to a private enterprise.
4) How could this arrangement with a private business provide for a joint-venture of sorts, where the city allows the aquarium to be built and the CMA is to fund the construction of a new City Hall, but from a tiny ticket surcharge of 50 cents per ticket sold? If the minimum break-even attendance of 975,000 visitors per year is met (doubtful based on the evaluation of many who studied this, and much more than the Florida Aquarium), it would take 16 years before a lease payment starts. And with inflation, what is $250,000 per year going to do? It likely won't meet the salary of the city manager alone.
5) Whoa, we are talking a huge influx of cars based on traffic studies to date. This writer visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Street access there is by way of a major boulevard — nothing like the clogged streets Clearwater has to deal with. The proposed aquarium is an industrial-strength tourist attraction! Traffic will be a zoo! If Clearwater really wants to benefit from a new aquarium, wouldn't it be better served to have easy access, like on Tampa Bay near Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and the Bayside Bridge?
6) Downtown requires a lot of new residential housing to bring restaurants, shops and the like, for the area to prosper. But the traffic generated by an industrial-strength tourist magnet can hinder this. Who wants to contend with that?
7) What if it can't meet projections? If an aquarium fails financially, what can be done? There are not many uses for a failed aquarium structure. Tear it down at the cost of millions of dollars and return the land for a better use? Or a financial bail-out by the taxpaying citizens in Clearwater, like Tampa is doing — that's the most likely selection.
Lee Meekcoms, Clearwater
Aquarium needs new location
In 1972 the Clearwater Marine Aquarium idea was born and in 1978 it obtained its current location. It opened its doors to the public at the start of the Ronald Reagan era and has been open ever since through good times and tough ones for over three decades.
The history and tremendous success of this hometown business can be viewed online or in conversations with its over 800 volunteers. A basic fact is the CMA has national and worldwide appeal along with being Clearwater's biggest business attraction.
If you doubt this, open a business in downtown Clearwater on the way to the beach like I have had for the past six-plus years. Take the time to learn about its leadership and board members and you will see why it is such a success and highly regarded community business partner.
There is a small group of naysayers living mostly in a condo called Water's Edge next to City Hall. Their condo building only exists because the city spent millions of taxpayer dollars to completely overhaul water and sewage infrastructure so the highrise condo could be built. Then the city ended up paying for a $13 million marina benefiting Water's Edge more than anyone. Somehow this is all okay with the naysayers because it's good business for them.
But when a Clearwater-based business with over 30 years of success wants to pay fair market value and lease city land, it's bad business in the naysayers' eyes. In other words, when the city makes money and a good business decision for everyone else, it's a bad idea in the condo owners' minds.
It is just a case of "Not In My Back Yard." And the so-called "Friends of Clearwater" are only friends to themselves. Don't believe all the garbage being spewed by them, because in my opinion, they're throwing out more lies and misinformation than Progress Energy did regarding its nuke plant. And this small group is spending thousands of dollars to try and thwart the referendum and a great opportunity for Clearwater.
Vote yes on Tuesday.
Mike Riordon, Clearwater