CLEARWATER — Years ago, my children made the pilgrimage to Island Estates to see the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a working animal hospital that rescues and treats marine wildlife. It left a positive impression on them, particularly my son, who went on to graduate college with a marine science degree.
A lot has changed since then, particularly with the release of “A Dolphin Tale,” a true-life movie featuring Winter, the rescued bottle-nose dolphin that was fitted with a prosthetic tail by the Clearwater Aquarium. The film was fine family entertainment that did well at the box office — so much so that a sequel is being filmed here.
Interest in Winter went viral, and the aquarium saw a substantial increase in attendance. Wanting to capitalize on the film, the aquarium wants to build much bigger center downtown aimed at visitors and use the current facility strictly as a marine hospital.
On Nov. 5, Clearwater voters will be asked to vote on leasing prime real estate — the property City Hall sits on — to the aquarium to build a $160-million center overlooking scenic Clearwater Harbor. Under a tentative agreement with the city, the aquarium has agreed to cover the costs of a new city hall and make $250,000 annual rent payments. The city would not contribute any money toward the project.
This is an ambitious effort by the aquarium, which is trying to evolve into something much different than its original mission as a marine hospital. Instead, it wants to become a major aquarium on a par with the biggest aquariums in the country and compete for tourist dollars with heavyweights such as Sea World, just 90 minutes up the road in Orlando. Such plans have faltered before, including at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, where taxpayers are having to foot the bill after years of less-than-stellar business.
“A Dolphin Tale” has been a godsend for the Clearwater aquarium, as I’m sure its upcoming sequel will be; but will tourists be coming to see a world-class aquarium or a Hollywood actor (Winter)? Americans have short memories. Unless Hollywood decides to make multiple sequels, the public will eventually forget about Winter, and attendance will drop, potentially leaving the taxpayers saddled with another white elephant. (Or would it be a white manatee?)
The question to ask aquarium officials is this: Is their mission to entertain the public or to teach? If you are going to entertain, I’m not convinced you have the right venue and will inevitably face stiff competition. Expanding the Island Estates property may make more sense.
Most disturbing of all is that Clearwater voters will be making an emotional decision on this referendum, as opposed to a logical business decision. This is because AECOM, the management consulting firm hired to produce a feasibility study for the project, won’t deliver the report in time for voters to evaluate its findings. Instead, people are essentially being asked to pass the referendum and find out later what the report says, and that’s certainly not an intelligent way of conducting business. It is simply premature to vote on this resolution at this time. The vote should wait for another day, when voters can make an educated decision. Asking people to vote on this referendum now is reckless and irresponsible. How can you vote on something you haven’t thought through?
As much as I appreciate and value the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, I would have to vote “no” on this, if I lived in the city, until all of the facts are known. Remember, its “ready, set, go.” Any other sequence is courting disaster. This is certainly not how business is conducted or how taxpayers should decide on such a significant investment.
All of this because of a lovable dolphin that was rescued and fitted with a prosthetic tail.
Keep the faith!