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Dinosaur museum plan not a giant hit

Donald Wolberg knows about dinosaurs and their value for teaching science to kids, said city leaders, tourism and attraction professionals after a long meeting with the New Jersey paleontologist Thursday.

But they weren't sold on his idea for a huge dinosaur museum next to the Florida Aquarium.

"I don't know if that's the right thing for down there," said Mayor Dick Greco, who sat though an hour of the presentation at the aquarium. "It's up to us to choose things that will better our situation 20, 30, 40 years from now instead of making a snap decision."

Since 1993, Wolberg has enjoyed some success with a large traveling exhibit of dinosaur skeletons and robots called Dinofest. The show attracted large crowds in three cities, including a monthlong run in Philadelphia that drew some 500,000 visitors.

Now, he wants to build a chain of museums called Planet Park with changing exhibits of dinosaurs and other scientific topics.

In a meeting with Tampa officials in March, Wolberg and his development team laid out plans for a $75-million museum with at least eight enclosed acres on the aquarium's waterfront parking lot.

He didn't come with a financial plan or other specifics for the closed-door meeting Thursday.

But Wolberg stuck by a startling prediction that Planet Park could attract 1.4-million visitors the first year, more than double the aquarium's annual attendance.

The number drew gasps from an audience that included top officials from the aquarium, Busch Gardens, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Tampa-Hillsborough Convention & Visitors Association and Tampa Port Authority.

"Dinosaurs are a great exhibition topic, absolutely fantastic for kids from 3 to 5 (years old)," said Wit Ostrenko, the science museum's president.

Jeffery Swanagan, the aquarium's executive director, suggested Wolberg test the market by first staging his traveling exhibit in Tampa.

"If they're ever going to do a Planet Park, it seems it would do best in a city that already had a Dinofest," he said.

Wolberg was upbeat after the three-hour session.

"It was fun, it was exciting. I'm crazy about this town," he said. The next step for his team is to delve into studies on the area's demographics and attractions before conducting a feasibility study, Wolberg said. The group won't ask for any public money for the study or to build Planet Park, he said.

_ Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384, or at huettelsptimes.com.

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