The City of Clearwater gave the Clearwater Marine Aquarium its current facility on Island Estates. Now, CMA wants to build a $160 million facility on the downtown waterfront property currently occupied by city hall.
It is negotiating up to a 60-year lease, and this time, it is not a "sweetheart" deal.
"We're still negotiating, but I'm fairly confident that we're at least going to get 50 cents per ticket to help us build a new city hall," Mayor George Cretekos said. A new city hall will cost an estimated $7.5 million. The project also includes a new parking garage at an estimated cost of $7.6 million. Cretekos said that expense is also part of the negotiations.
Monday, the Clearwater City Council put the final touches on ballot language for a November referendum. Voters have to approve the use of city waterfront property for a non-public use. Final action on the ballot language could come Thursday.
In the meantime, work has started on a much more complicated document.
A "memorandum of understanding" will detail many of the finer points of any eventual lease between the city and CMA. Cretekos expected that document to be ready in plenty of time for voters to consider.
CMA claims it has outgrown its current facility because of the popularity of Winter the Dolphin, featured in the motion picture "A Dolphin's Tale." More than 750,000 people visited CMA last year, and an economic study predicts that number could grow to 2.5 million.
The aquarium has a second exhibit called "Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure" in downtown's old Harborview Center. With voter approval and substantial contributions, CMA would continue to use Harborview while its new facility is built.
The downtown aquarium would house Winter and other rescued animals unsuited to release into the wild. The current facility on Island Estates would be a rehabilitation center not open to the public.
The proposal is being closely watched by downtown residents, particularly residents of Water's Edge. That condominium tower is adjacent to the city hall property. Some of them approached CMA officials after Monday's city council workshop.
"Our concern at Water's Edge is the amount of traffic that they would bring downtown," said Michael Marsh. Joe Corvino said a list of concerns is growing. "About things like noise and traffic and parking, security and trespassing and all this stuff."
Corvina added that the project support of city, county and state governments is understandable. However, "Whose looking out for the people that live within 100 feet of the facility?" Corvino queried, "It has to be us. We have to ask the questions."
CMA executive Frank Dame promised to work with the neighbors, but cautioned some details will remain unknown for now.
"Any money that we spend today on design and engineering, if the referendum doesn't pass, goes right down a black hole," Dame explained.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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