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Battle lines form in Clearwater as aquarium referendum nears

CLEARWATER — "A new home for Winter is our next big dream." Those words accompany a photo of the movie star dolphin with a prosthetic tail on a flier asking Clearwater residents to support a proposal for a $160 million aquarium downtown.

But opponents say that reliance on Winter is one of several flaws in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's ambitious expansion plan. What if she dies?

Aquarium leaders have a ready answer: Hope, a younger dolphin rescued the night of the wrap party for Dolphin Tale, the 2011 movie about Winter that catapulted the small, underfunded aquarium to the top-drawing aquarium in Florida. Hope will star in the Dolphin Tale sequel now filming in Clearwater.

Winter and Hope are international brands that give the 40-year-old nonprofit rescue and rehab facility, operating in a modified wastewater treatment plant in a residential community, a unique opportunity to broaden its mission. A TV deal is being hammered out. And reruns, cable and merchandising will bring publicity, tourists and cash as regular as the tides, boosters say.

But the heart-warming stories about rescued wildlife may obscure another goal as the Nov. 5 aquarium referendum approaches: The moribund downtown of Tampa Bay's third-largest city desperately needs life. Some leaders say a showplace aquarium that would draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year may be the last, best hope.

A component of that fervor, rarely voiced, is that a three-story, 200,000-square-foot aquarium with a dolphin stadium, two-story coral reef tank, marine animal exhibits, a 4-D theater and more will dilute the Church of Scientology's very visible presence in downtown Clearwater.

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On Nov. 5 , Clearwater voters will either kill the idea or allow city leaders to enter negotiations with the aquarium on a 60-year lease for about 5 1/2 acres of prime waterfront real estate where City Hall now stands.

Rival fliers are appearing in mailboxes. The race for campaign cash is a dead heat. Neighborhood meetings degenerate into shouting matches. Rumors and conspiracy theories abound.

That's par for the course when changes to public land on downtown's waterfront bluff are on the ballot. Much of the city-owned bluff — now occupied by City Hall, a library, a former trade center and Coachman Park — is protected by a referendum requirement in the city charter.

"You're talking about the bluff. That is sacred ground. There is going to be a fight — there always is," said Carl Schrader, Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition president.

Past referendums haven't fared well. In 2000, an ambitious plan by a developer to remake downtown was soundly defeated. So was a more modest plan in 2004, before a baby-step proposal for boat slips and a promenade squeaked by three years later.

CMA wants to use only the City Hall property and abutting tennis courts, both overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway — a ready source of the saltwater the aquarium needs. A "memorandum of understanding" approved by the City Council in August states that the aquarium would pay the city up to $7.5 million to build a new City Hall elsewhere — 50 cents per aquarium ticket sold. Once that figure was reached, the aquarium would pay the city $250,000 a year for the balance of the lease.

If by Aug. 1, 2016, CMA couldn't raise enough money to build the aquarium, the deal with the city would dissolve.

That's a key point that's yet to sink in for many voters, said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who is leading the aquarium effort.

"All we're asking for is a chance to go out and raise the money," he said. The aquarium plans to seek county, state and federal funds as well as private donations.

Some opponents claim the city is "giving away" the City Hall property, but it is a lease, not a property transfer. CMA's payments to the city would amount to two to three times the market value of the property as determined by a city-commissioned appraisal, Hibbard said, and a thriving aquarium could help spark a boom downtown.

"It's the best deal I've seen since I've been part of any city decisions," said Hibbard, who served 10 years on the City Council — eight as mayor.

Opponents say the land is actually worth $10 million more than the city's appraisal and that elected officials aren't giving voters other development options.

"They have basically caved in to whatever the aquarium's business plan is," said Tom Petersen, an opponent who has sued to stop the referendum.

Critics also cite a city traffic study predicting clogged intersections downtown. They wonder why CMA's feasibility study won't be finished until after the referendum. They bet CMA won't come close to sustaining the 975,000 annual visitors it needs to stay afloat.

"You know that if this is built and they're going broke, they're going to come to the city and ask for funding," Petersen said.

They could ask, but the city has no obligation to bail out the aquarium, according to the memorandum of understanding.

Opponents point out that the memorandum is nonbinding and could be torn up after the referendum. Both aquarium and city leaders say they wouldn't change the financial details.

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When it comes to the suggestion that aquarium visitors could dilute Scientology's presence downtown, aquarium supporters steer clear of that stack of political dynamite.

"This isn't about Scientology; this is really about where is the best expansion opportunity for CMA," Hibbard said.

The church hasn't taken a stand on the referendum. But the church recently spent more than $3 million to scoop up an acre of land downtown that CMA was eyeing for a parking garage.

Aquarium CEO David Yates said voters need to avoid the thickets of Clearwater's waterfront politics and focus on the future. "We have a very simple goal: to build a new facility downtown that's not just good for us, but good for the entire community. Some people are trying to make it more complicated than it is."

Charlie Frago can be reached at or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago