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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014

Editorial: A reality check for Clearwater aquarium plan


Give credit to the backers of a proposed Clearwater Marine Aquarium facility in downtown Clearwater for scaling back their original plan and settling on the right focus for the attraction.

But their business model still seems optimistic, and elected officials and taxpayers should be cautious.

After pitching an overly ambitious $160 million facility with dolphin shows and fish tanks rivaling established aquariums in Tampa and Atlanta, the backers announced last week that they have settled on a $68 million plan focusing on the marine rescue and rehabilitation mission that has distinguished the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for decades.

Rescuing an injured dolphin and successfully attaching a prosthetic tail several years ago inspired the “Dolphin Tale” movie that boosted attendance beyond the capacity of the existing facility on Island Estates. A sequel to the first movie is headed for theaters next month, and there may be a TV show in the offing.

Even with that exposure we find a consultant’s recent attendance estimates of slightly more than 1 million a year to be optimistic. An updated feasibility study based on the new design might lower those estimates. Even so, before agreeing to a long-term lease the City Council should be confident the plan can meet the financial obligations with annual attendance numbers well below 1 million.

Understandably, the jump in annual attendance from 250,000 to 750,000 after the first movie’s release was intoxicating to aquarium officials. And the popularity of Winter the dolphin is remarkable.

But the original plan was unrealistic and too costly. Aquarium officials said more than 2 million annual visitors would come through the turnstiles; the 19-year-old Florida Aquarium less than 30 miles away has never drawn 1 million in a year.

Without question, the retooled plan is more deserving of consideration. As the Tribune’s Josh Boatwright reports, visitors would be given a behind-the-scenes look at the marine rehabilitation program. From observation decks, visitors could watch the staff work with injured and sick marine life. “No seats, no big shows,” Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates said. “Just seeing a normal day of how they care for our dolphins.”

Interactive exhibits will engage children in the rehabilitation process, and about 50,000 of the facility’s 200,000 square feet will be outdoors to take advantage of the mild winter weather and waterfront views from the bluff overlooking the harbor. A banquet hall will be available for lease for an added revenue stream.

But before building, the backers must obtain commitments for the funding. Aquarium officials say they’ll need a $23 million construction loan and a successful $16 million fundraising campaign to bring the facility out of the ground. They want Pinellas County to commit $1.5 million a year for the next 20 years from tourist development taxes, and they have $2 million the state set aside this year for the project. They hope to have the commitments in place by April next year with plans to break ground six months later, provided the Clearwater City Council approves a final lease.

Attendance will be critical to meeting the obligations spelled out in the tentative agreement aquarium officials reached in gaining the voters’ approval to lease the land. They agreed to give the city of Clearwater $7.5 million from ticket revenues to help build a new City Hall if the existing City Hall building is demolished to make way for the aquarium. And they agreed to give the city $250,0000 annually after the City Hall obligation is met. The details of what a final lease might contain are being hammered out now.

We urged voters last year to reject the aquarium’s request to lease the land because of the plan’s implausibility. Cutting nearly $100 million off the cost and emphasizing the aquarium’s core recovery mission goes a long way toward viability.

Now the backers are asking potential donors to believe in their new vision. And the City Council must decide whether to lease a prime piece of downtown property on the premise Winter the dolphin will remain wildly popular for decades to come.

Those decisions should be made with realistic expectations.

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