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Tampa aquarium gets lease, praise

The Florida Aquarium on Tuesday cleared another hurdle for the multimillion-dollar project, winning quick approval for a land lease and additional funds from the Tampa Port Authority. Aquarium officials in a presentation to the port's board also unveiled details of the design for the 120,000-square-foot building, which will be built on waterfront property near downtown Tampa.

The project is on budget and on schedule for construction next March with completion in late 1994, director Jim Stuart told the port's board members.

An updated feasibility study shows the project looks "even stronger than before," said Stuart, who predicted the aquarium will help efforts to build a downtown convention center hotel.

It was good news for the bay area, which is reeling from the loss of major league baseball, a proposed shutdown of MacDill Air Force Base and gloomy news about St. Petersburg's downtown development plan. Port commissioners quickly praised the project.

"This is a great asset for the city of Tampa," said board member Ron Moore.

Board member Roy Wilcox said the project, which was started in Clearwater several years ago, has "tremendous support on both sides of the bay."

The aquarium team still must seek final approval from Fuji Bank of Japan, which will issue a letter of credit for $84-million in bonds to pay for the project. The city of Tampa has agreed to guarantee the bonds.

Also, promoters need to raise additional funds for marketing and operation costs. The port board on Tuesday gave final approval for a $600,000 loan to the aquarium, the final part of a total $1-million loaned by the port authority for the project. The port also has agreed to guarantee up to $10-million in bonds for a "buffer fund" that will reduce the city's liability.

Stuart said he is optimistic about the challenges, noting that Fuji also is financing the proposed hockey arena for Tampa. "They've looked at this city and this area and are impressed," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, the aquarium is attracting more investors because of the progress on the project. "It's getting a lot easier," Stuart said. "We are starting to get the interest."

The port agreed Tuesday to lease 4.3 acres on the eastern end of the port's 20.5-acre Garrison Channel property. The 40-year lease has an option for an additional 40 years, and lease payments will be based on a percentage of revenue from the aquarium.

Aquarium leaders are negotiating to lease an adjacent 11.4-acre parcel from Coca-Cola Enterprises for parking.

The development cost of the project, including interest, is expected to total about $97-million.

The aquarium, planned to be a research and educational center as well as a tourist attraction, is expected to draw more than 1.6-million visitors a year.

The three-story building, which will include several outside decks, will hold 4,000 people, said Pete Karamitsanis, an architect with Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc.

Each visit will take a minimum of two hours, including time spent in the exhibits, the cafeteria and the gift shop.

The tour will start in the forested wetlands, which will include live trees as tall as 45 feet and feature different types of Florida vegetation and marine life. The exhibit will be enclosed under a large glass dome that will rise 90 feet.

The second exhibit will feature a coral reef tank large enough to create the illusion of a dive in the ocean.

While the reef initially will include artificial coral, aquarium leaders hope to replace it eventually with live coral grown in the aquarium.

On the top floor, visitors will be able to view the "back shop" of the aquarium, inspecting the machinery used to run the huge aquarium tanks and watching aquarium employees feed the fish.