Most everyone loves the story of Winter, and most everyone appreciates the rehabilitative efforts provided by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. However, many question the wisdom of a Clearwater charter amendment that would relinquish control and use of publicly owned land for a sole specified use — a marine aquarium. The CMA even has the audacity in its promotional efforts to claim that the amendment would safeguard the city’s public land for public use, while at the same time reserving it for itself, a commercial venture, albeit a “nonprofit” venture.
The most troubling aspect, however, is the prospect of a very costly, unique, intricate multi-level aquarium being built that ultimately could serve no other purpose. In the event the aquarium is not successful, or went bankrupt, CMA claims that creditors or the city could “replace management and operate the aquarium.” I’m sure no creditors or the city would relish that idea. Alternatively, those same creditors or the city could “disassemble the building, sell the assets and give the land back to the city.” Again, no mention is made of who would pay for such costly demolition. Even though CMA promotional material states “Taxpayers will have no obligation for CMA’s debt,” what else would one do with an unprofitable $160-million aquarium building sitting on public land?
CMA usually fails to mention all the public money that has already been supplied to aid in its development. Just a couple of years ago public tax dollars from the Penny for Pinellas, $750,000, was given to CMA for the parking lot purchase next to its Island Estates facility.
There are more “facts” distributed by CMA that disguise reality. For example, its promos indicate that:
(1) A “yes” vote ensures “more than fair market value for City land,” based on payments over the proposed 60-year lease” that “could be as much as $20 million, almost triple the property’s appraised value.” Of course, that’s the current appraised value, not 60 years from now.
(2) “Replacement of City Hall at no expense to taxpayers.” The actual amount promised is $7.5 million, to be paid for via a 50-cent charge per ticket sale, until that amount is paid in full. Of course, no one has determined how long that will take, or how much a new city hall will actually cost, or where it would be located.
CMA states that a downtown aquarium has the “potential” to stimulate redevelopment, which is probably one of the few facts that “could” have some truth in it. However, as far as CMA’s other claims, please do yourself a favor and review them carefully. Most likely you will come up with the same conclusion that a “no” vote for the charter amendment is the best preventative measure for this very risky reservation of public land for a commercial enterprise.