Few local landmarks have the right to boast more than the Florida Aquarium: Look at me now! An attraction that had more than its share of detractors in the tough, early going has become an engine for tourism, conservation and growth for the Tampa Bay region. It’s a success story that reflects what can happen when political and civic leaders carry through an exciting project whose contributions only grow over time. As it celebrates its 25th year, the aquarium should be proud of the mark it’s made and confident in charting an even more ambitious future.
Of course, this public standing wasn’t always the case. The aquarium faced a host of challenges and skepticisms in its critical formative years. From virtually the day it opened on March 31, 1995, it was clear that attendance projections were wildly optimistic, prompting the aquarium to lay off staff and secure handouts from the city of Tampa.
But the vision by Tampa leaders, including then-Mayor Sandy Freedman and Tampa car dealer Jim Ferman, in seeing the project through has resulted in a regional gem that has transformed downtown Tampa. Beginning as a Clearwater-based project, the project refashioned itself in 1986 as the Florida Aquarium and brokered a new home on the downtown Tampa waterfront. By the 1990s, the aquarium was becoming a catalyst for Tampa’s downtown channel district, which would see a new hockey arena, the Channelside Bay Plaza retail and entertainment complex, a growing cruise industry port, new condominiums, apartments and hotels and, most recently, the multi-billion dollar Water Street Tampa mixed-use development.
The aquarium built an audience by improving the wow-factor enough to entice visitors to return time and again. An up-front experience with dolphins or penguins creates excitement that’s hard to forget. The aquarium also plays a pioneering role in environmental conservation. Its work in reproducing coral furthers the critical job of protecting our coastal habitats and commercial and recreational fisheries. The aquarium is also engaged in restoring healthy shark populations in the wild, and rescuing and returning sea turtles to the sea - two of many efforts aimed at both making a difference in Florida’s natural environment and educating the public on the importance of a sustainable habitat. In that sense, the Tampa attraction is truly living up to its name as the Florida Aquarium.
The aquarium notes it has educated more than 1.7 million students and rescued hundreds of animals since its opening. It was an outpost in what’s now the most dynamic area of downtown Tampa. And its service to the ecosystem of Florida has raised its national profile. Last week, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the aquarium announced a host of new exhibits and expansion plans that will provide a richer experience for visitors and build on the institution’s conservation and educational missions.
These investments position the aquarium to grow as a regional asset, and to contribute even more to the liveliness and prosperity of Tampa Bay. None of this could have happened without the foresight and grit of earlier leaders, who recognized the potential an aquarium would bring to a growing, coastal community in Florida. The 25th anniversary is a moment to celebrate this success by furthering the aquarium’s ambition.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.