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Bill Crown, driving force behind Tampa’s Florida Aquarium, dies at 80

Crown spent a decade trying to build a world-class aquarium in Tampa Bay. In 1995, he succeeded.
Exhibit designer Joseph Wetzel, left, Florida Aquarium president Bill Crown and Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman look over a model of the planned aquarium in 1989. Crown, a driving force behind the aquarium, died Jan. 12 at age 80.
Exhibit designer Joseph Wetzel, left, Florida Aquarium president Bill Crown and Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman look over a model of the planned aquarium in 1989. Crown, a driving force behind the aquarium, died Jan. 12 at age 80. [ Times (1989) ]
Published Jan. 14|Updated Jan. 14

Bill Crown, who led a decadelong push to fund and build the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, has died.

Crown was diagnosed in December with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, according to his family’s funeral notice, and died Jan. 12 at his home in Clearwater. He was 80.

William Crown III was the owner of Crown & Co., the Clearwater high net worth accounting firm founded by his father, Bill Jr., and run today by his daughter, Lindsey Hardee. He loved to fish and was an avid conservationist. In the 1970s, when a group of developers was looking into building on Clearwater’s Moonshine Island, he organized an effort to buy and preserve it.

Crown’s environmental efforts led him to the Clearwater Marine Sciences Center — now known as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — where he served as president until 1987. By that point, Crown had already incorporated the Florida Aquarium Inc. and had expanded the center’s real estate holdings as he worked toward his dream of opening a world-class aquarium in Clearwater. But residents resisted the project, and Crown turned elsewhere.

Ultimately, the aquarium project took a decade of inter-city wrangling, with one force or another nudging it from locations such as Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs or Harbour Island before it finally landed in downtown Tampa. The cost rose from $50 million to nearly $100 million, but Crown and others kept pushing for funding from the Tampa City Council and private donors.

Bill Crown was the driving founder of the Florida Aquarium, which opened in 1995. He died Jan. 12 at age 80.
Bill Crown was the driving founder of the Florida Aquarium, which opened in 1995. He died Jan. 12 at age 80. [ Crown & Co. ]

To emphasize the potential impact of an aquarium with exhibits based on Florida’s natural freshwater ecosystem, he organized a board trip to the Chassahowitzka River in Citrus County. The board was sold.

“Every time it died, it was like a phoenix,” Crown said when the aquarium opened in 1995. “It came out of the ashes, stronger than ever. It was fascinating.”

Crown was a founding member of the aquarium’s board of directors, and an honorary trustee until his death.

“The Florida Aquarium would not be here without Bill Crown,” said aquarium president and CEO Roger Germann. “Pulling everything together in a strong, robust, conservation-tourist-educational attraction, that was his vision.”

Crown always saw the project, wherever it landed, as both an environmental and economic driver. It remains both today — especially in its current location, in what was once a relatively quiet area, but is now at the heart of the city’s $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa development.

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“When Jeff Vinik was looking at (buying) the Lightning and Amalie Arena, one of the factors was this really big, cool aquarium that’s just to the east of him, that things could happen here,” Germann said.

Crown served on numerous boards around Tampa Bay over the years, including those of the Berkeley Preparatory School, Morton Plant Hospital Foundation and Clearwater High School. He belonged to, and received lifetime awards from, a number of civic and community organizations.

But the Florida Aquarium was long his proudest accomplishment, “his shining piece of his life and history,” Germann said.

“It was our baby, a big baby, that we birthed,” his wife, Bette Crown, said in 1993.

Crown is survived by Bette, to whom he was married for 48 years; as well as his sons, Will and Brian Crown; daughters, Hardee, Dawn Morrison, Shannon Parker and Ali Martin; and 15 grandchildren.

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