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Money race on Clearwater Aquarium Referendum closer than expected

CLEARWATER--The money race between supporters and opponents of a new downtown aquarium is tighter than many expected, but not quite neck-and-neck as what appears in the fundraising reports filed this week.

Friends of CMA, the pro-aquarium PAC, announced it has raised $32,200. Friends of Clearwater, the anti-aquarium PAC, listed $31,620 in contributions

Here's the twist: Judy Bennett, chief operating officer at Bob Carter Companies, LLC, a Sarasota fundraising consultant firm, mistakenly gave $2,000 to Friends of Clearwater, who oppose the $160.5 million, three-story proposal that will advance if voters approve on Nov. 5.

"There are too many 'friends' out there," said Bennett on Friday. She has contacted the Friends of Clearwater to get her money back. She will then contribute the cash to Friends of CMA, her intended target.

Bob Carter Companies is working with CMA on a fundraising strategy to raise cash from private donors and corporations if the referendum passes.

An amended political scorecard would then read: Friends of CMA--$34,200, Friends of Clearwater---$29,620.

Friends of CMA has been raising money since April. For the latest period between July 1 and Sept. 30, the group hauled in $16,870 in cash and $3,000 in-kind from Frank Chivas, who hosted a fundraising bash at his Island Way Grill in September.

Formed in mid-August, Friends of Clearwater raked in $29,620 by Sept. 30. Most of those dollars came from residents of Water's Edge and Pierce 100, high-rise luxury condo towers that would be the downtown neighbors of a new aquarium located on waterfront land now occupied by City Hall.

Joe Corvino, who is leading the effort to quash the new aquarium, has said that he expects his group to be heavily outspent by CMA and its supporters.

So far, that's not the case. Corvino's PAC has spent $27,065 to CMA-aligned Friends of CMA's $13,353.

Both sides have sent out mailers and staked yard signs around the city.

Corvino, who lives in Water's Edge, has complained that CMA-backers have characterized the opposition as being almost entirely residents of the condo towers.

He says his group's influence has spread to other parts of the city of nearly 110,000.

But the money trail says otherwise, at least in terms of cash.

Although 12 of the 39 donors to Friends of Clearwater don't live in the two towers, their contributions total $2,125 or 7 percent of the money raised.

The rest comes from Water's Edge or Pierce 100.

Friends of CMA has received donations from former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the effort for a new aquarium, CMA officials Frank Dame and David Yates, former Mayor Brian Aungst, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and CMA Board Chairman John Draheim.

Interestingly, former Mayor Rita Garvey, who served 12 years as mayor in the 1980s and 90s, gave $250 to the anti-aquarium PAC. Garvey lost to Aungst in 1999 and Hibbard in 2008.

Garvey didn't immediately return a call for comment.