Aquarium advocates still fishing for accurate pricetag - FOX 13 News

Aquarium advocates still fishing for accurate pricetag

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When Clearwater voters gave a thumbs up to a downtown Clearwater Marine Aquarium [CMA] on land occupied by their city hall, there was a specific price tag for the project: $160 million.

Now FOX 13 News is told that price is too high -- way too high.

"We'd like to get it to under $100 million. The question is, are you going to compromise anything?" said Frank Hibbard, former mayor and now chairman of the CMA's fund raising committee. "We want a nice facility. We're not trying to create an architectural icon."

Hibbard called the original price tag far too conservative. Construction of the proposed 200,000 square foot facility was priced at $800 a square foot. That is nearly triple the construction costs of luxury condominium towers. Aquarium supporters realized the $160 million was inaccurate, but feared revealing the current estimate before last week's referendum.

"If you come back and say this number's too high, it's really a lower number, people are going to question whether you're fiddling with the numbers and trying to cook the books," Hibbard explained.

With referendum approval secured, CMA is now finalizing its plans to determine a more precise cost, and conducting a feasibility study to make sure projected attendance warrants the investment. The first meeting of the fund raising committee meeting was held Monday, and immediately zeroed in on unusual opportunities for a not-for-profit organization.

Both depend on the popularity of Winter the dolphin, already featured in one motion picture, with a sequel now being filmed.

"The crowd-funding has a lot of potential" explained CMA executive director David Yates, "You go after a lot of people for a small donation each."

After the release of Dolphin Tale, about 7 million people, mostly children, visited CMA's website, where Winter and other animals can be watched via Web cameras.

"We have 5 million people watching us on Facebook," Yates said. "If they'll all give $10, that's a lot of money."

Corporate contributions might also be lucrative.

"We have a world-wide brand," Hibbard said, adding that could appeal to a different level of sponsorship. "Your Coca Cola's, your Pepsi's, your Frito Lays- companies like that that are national" he said.

CMA will also hit p Pinellas County for some of the bed tax revenue collected from tourists. It would like a commitment of $2 million a year, which could bond approximately $46 million of the project. Bed tax collections should exceed $30 million this year. The county commission and the tourist development council have a joint workshop scheduled for Tuesday.

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