When The Florida Aquarium began to take shape more than 15 years ago, only about 600 people were residential neighbors in the gritty area east of the main business district.
And those were the inmates at the county jail, jokes Tom Hall, the chair of The Florida Aquarium Foundation who was instrumental in developing the aquarium.
These days, the jail is long gone. Condominiums with several thousand residents populate the area that's become home to an entertainment district, major hotels, and a sports arena, with the aquarium in the middle of it all.
Today, the aquarium took what might be the largest step yet in its evolution from a dysfunctional financial beginning, despite an early nationwide reputation as a first-class scientific, educational and entertainment facility.
Aquarium officials and a longtime corporate benefactor announced plans for a $15 million education facility, advancing the aquarium's mission as Florida's center for aquatic study while elevating its presence as a linchpin for Channelside development.
The√ Mosaic Co., whose regional phosphate activities have spurred the firm's attention to environmental issues, is providing a $2.5 million donation, the largest gift in aquarium history.
That increases the aquarium's new "Rising Tides" program to $6 million of its $15 million goal.
Rising Tides will create a wing southeast of the main entrance that will alter the face of the aquarium, adding 35,000 square feet of space and renovating another 10,000 square feet.
It will accommodate marine science classrooms, exhibit space for aquatic ecosystems and marine animals and a conference space to be called The Mosaic Center.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for September 2012. Sequenced construction projects will prepare The Mosaic Center to open by the fall of 2016.
"This is the beginning of the next chapter of Tampa's history," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, adding that Mosaic's gift during the economic downturn will send a message that Tampa won't settle for becoming a mediocre city. "This is a pivotal event."
Aquarium president and chief executive Thom Stork said he hopes Mosaic's $2.5 million donation will serve as a further catalyst for business and other contributions.
Plans for Mosaic's donation have been under discussion for more than a year, Senior vice President of Phosphate Operations Bo Davis said.
Mosaic, which has been hauling seawater for aquarium needs for the past eight years, sees its contributions as fitting its environmental and educational messages, he said.
Aquarium attendance is a little off this year but revenue is up for the facility that draws more than 600,000 people annually.
The aquarium's difficult beginning stemmed largely from attendance falling short of projections, causing deficits. A rigid policy of matching expenditures that board members instituted more than a decade ago has kept the facility's budget in the black.