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City Council give green light to agreement on aquarium lease

A conceptual rendering shows a two-story coral reef tank in the new proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
A conceptual rendering shows a two-story coral reef tank in the new proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Published Aug. 15, 2013

CLEARWATER — The City Council unanimously approved a tentative agreement Wednesday to lease prime city-owned land on the waterfront for a new $160.5 million aquarium that would house Winter the dolphin.

The vote came after about an hour of public comments on the project. Some raised concerns about the aquarium eventually requiring city money, causing traffic congestion and wasting prime real estate. They were countered by supporters who said the city had a historic opportunity to revitalize downtown.

Voters will decide whether the project advances in a Nov. 5 referendum.

Mayor George Cretekos balked earlier this week at an offer that he characterized as a bad financial deal for the city. The later, more generous offer approved at Wednesday's City Council meeting would require the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to pay interest on $7.5 million in payments generated by a surcharge of 50 cents per ticket.

The aquarium estimates that its attendance would pay off that amount in about 15 years. After that, the aquarium would pay $250,000 a year to the city for use of the land for the duration of the 60-year lease on Osceola Avenue.

"I think we've reached a good compromise," Cretekos said.

Former Mayor Frank Hibbard, who has led the effort for a new aquarium, said negotiations had been "interesting" but that "transformative projects are never easy."

The 2011 hit movie Dolphin Tale brought an attendance boom to the current aquarium on Island Estates. That led to talks between the aquarium and city this spring for a new one.

City Hall, built in 1966, now stands on that property. CMA would pay to demolish the structure, but the city is responsible for costs associated with removing any asbestos found inside. City engineers haven't yet determined how much, if any, asbestos is present.

The property is valued at $16.4 million by the county appraiser. But a city-commissioned appraisal that took into account that the aquarium was only leasing the land and could only build an aquarium on it valued the land at $6.6 million.

City Attorney Pam Akin said CMA won't use all the land included in that appraisal, lowering its value.

The city would also be responsible for any costs if it chose to extend Pierce Street to Drew Street, a key component to allay concerns about congestion for waterfront condo owners, and for building a traffic roundabout at the western end of Cleveland Street.

The revised agreement, or memorandum of understanding, also states that no city general revenues will be spent on the design, construction, operation or maintenance of the new aquarium. The city will have no liability or obligation for any CMA loans and obligations, the agreement states.

If CMA can't raise the money to build the 200,000-square-foot facility, the agreement will dissolve Aug. 1, 2016.

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