Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014

Clearwater aquarium project may be scaled back


Published:

LARGO — The proposed $160-million new home for Winter the dolphin may end up being less luxurious than originally proposed.

Less than one week after Clearwater voters approved leasing the City Hall property downtown to build a new aquatic center, aquarium officials say they are looking for ways to scale down the cost of the project.

Original plans called for a 200,000-square-foot aquarium. Now, aquarium officials plan to conduct a value engineering study to consider lowering the price but stressed that does not mean the size of the aquarium will shrink.

“We think we can bring the price down,” said Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates. “We don’t’ have any definitive plans right now.”

Original estimates for the aquarium were conservatively estimated based on a cost of $800 per square foot. Actual costs could be considerably lower if, for example, the design uses more concrete and less glass, said Frank Dame, the aquarium’s executive vice president.

Aquarium officials are still discussing what changes to make. Dame said it may be possible to build the aquarium for less than $100 million.

“If we design the building to be somewhat austere, we can still get a ‘wow’ factor without being extravagant,” he said.

Lowering the cost may be prudent. One source of funding the aquarium hoped to tap was the county’s bed tax, which is used mainly for promoting tourism. The county is scheduled to make final payments on construction bonds for Tropicana Field, freeing up roughly $6 million per year in bed taxes.

But 11 of the 16 members of the Tourism Development Council, which oversees the revenue collected from stays in hotels and lodgings, said they were not willing to spend bed taxes on aquariums, according to a survey recently conducted by Research Data Services.

Under a nonbinding memorandum of understanding between the aquarium and the city, the aquarium must raise all necessary funds by Aug. 1, 2016. If aquarium leaders don’t meet that goal, the deal is off.

The plan does not depend on any one single source of funding, Yates said. Members of the tourism council have yet to see a formal pitch from the aquarium, he said.

“I wouldn’t expect them to know much at all,” he said “We’ve not gone to them.”

The aquarium’s ambitious expansion plans are intended to capitalize on the popularity of Winter, the dolphin whose rehabilitation after she was fitted with a prosthetic tail was featured in the popular movie “Dolphin Tale.” Critics have questioned the project’s viability and opposed the transfer of a prime piece of public land into the hands of the nonprofit aquarium.

Filming of a sequel began at the aquarium in October and will continue through January with a release date of Sept. 19.

The aquarium is also in talks with Alcon Entertainment about a possible TV show and plans to tie its fundraising efforts around the movie. That could include crowd-sourcing and corporate sponsorship.

“It will be a massive global campaign,” said Yates. “To be able to have our capital campaign coincide with the sequel is one of those great blessings that doesn’t happen very often.

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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