CLEARWATER — In a significant setback for Tampa Bay's third-largest city, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has decided not to move downtown after all.
The small aquarium near Clearwater Beach had proposed relocating to a significantly larger, modern $68 million facility that it intended to build on the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor. City officials had hoped the move would help revive Clearwater's sleepy downtown.
However, the aquarium is now abandoning that plan. Instead, it has decided to stay put and expand and upgrade its cramped quarters on Island Estates, a largely residential island in the Intracoastal Waterway.
In order to relocate downtown, the aquarium had been faced with a massive fundraising challenge, tasked with securing $28 million in private donations in a relatively short time frame. But the aquarium says fundraising woes aren't the reason behind its change in plans.
"We had many conversations with donors that went very well. A number of individuals made seven-digit pledges," said David Yates, CEO of the private, nonprofit aquarium. "With enough time, we know we could raise the funds."
The problem, he said, was how many years the whole thing was going to take.
"It became very clear to us that the entire project was going to take longer than we originally estimated," Yates said. "We want to do something sooner rather than later. We've got dolphins and guests that need more space. If we pull back and do an expansion on Island Estates, we can do it in less time."
The news strikes a blow to Clearwater's longtime goal of rejuvenating its downtown core. Officials had envisioned a world-class aquarium that could have attracted droves of tourists from thriving Clearwater Beach to the moribund downtown district, where empty storefronts have long persisted on some blocks.
"I know there will be a lot of disappointment, but we'll make the best of it," said Mayor George Cretekos. "I think all of us realized this was a very heavy lift for CMA."
The new 200,000-square-foot aquarium would have been a substantially larger home for Winter, CMA's famous dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail, and for the aquarium's other rescued marine life.
The aquarium started making plans for a larger facility because it was swamped by growing crowds after the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale, starring Winter. A sequel was released last year.
Expanding the existing aquarium will be a challenge. CMA previously said it would be tough to build much more on the constrained lot where it's currently located.
"There's no question there would be more space downtown to do an expansion," Yates said. "But with the latest engineering and design work, we're pleasantly surprised at what we think we can do here on Island Estates."
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The aquarium will unveil a new plan at an unspecified date. It has not decided whether to seek county bed tax money for the new project. At some point, an exhibit of Dolphin Tale props currently being displayed in downtown's Harborview Center will move to an expanded Island Estates aquarium, Yates said.
In the wake of Thursday's news, Clearwater will have some decisions to make.
The aquarium had intended to move to the site of Clearwater's City Hall, on the downtown waterfront. A 2013 voter referendum cleared the way for CMA to lease the publicly owned site from the city.
To make way for a new aquarium, Clearwater officials were ready to knock down the 1960s-era City Hall and move the city's headquarters elsewhere.
They're still prepared to do that — just not so quickly.
The question of what to do with the City Hall site will be up for debate again. A decade ago, the city was prepared to sell it to a condominium developer. Clearwater officials still see great development potential in the downtown waterfront.
"Jeff Vinik is doing his thing in Tampa. Bill Edwards is doing his thing in St. Petersburg," said City Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito. "I think we're going to get a great developer in here who says, 'It's time.' "
Downtown boosters believed that a new aquarium and a vibrant tourism scene would have diluted the presence of the Church of Scientology, which owns significant chunks of Clearwater's downtown.
Although the church attracts out-of-state believers who travel to Clearwater for religious services, some locals stay away from downtown partly because of Scientology's presence. Behind the scenes, Scientology had opposed the aquarium's proposed move to downtown.
One last thing: CMA's decision not to build an entirely new aquarium may bring a quiet sigh of relief from the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. It hadn't been looking forward to heavier competition for local tourism dollars.
"The Florida Aquarium commends the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on their continued focus on the mission of animal rescue and rehabilitation," Florida Aquarium CEO Thom Stork said Thursday. "We wish them the best of luck."
Times staff writer Zack Peterson contributed to this report. Contact Mike Brassfield at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.