BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
CLEARWATER — When Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials said they would cut costs significantly for a new downtown facility originally estimated at $160 million, they really meant it.
The price tag for final plans released Friday is $68 million for an attraction that will bring visitors behind the scenes of the aquarium’s marine rehab program made famous in the family film Dolphin Tale.
Rather than erecting a gargantuan building with great fish displays and stadium seats for dolphin shows in the traditional style of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the new designs show an aquatic center where guests can watch staff help rehabilitate sea turtles and dolphins from observation decks.
“The dolphin habitat is going to be entirely unique. No seats, no big shows. Just seeing a normal day of how they care for our dolphins,” aquarium CEO David Yates said.
The aquarium is saving big money by putting 50,000 of the facility’s 200,000 square feet outdoors, including part of a banquet hall with views of the dolphin tank, a coral reef exhibit and nearby waterways.
The plan still will require significant private and public investment, though, including a request for Pinellas County tourism taxes of $1.5 million a year for the next 20 years.
The aquarium will pay for the rest of the project with a $23 million construction loan, a $16 million capital fund-raising campaign, $2 million allocated in this year’s state budget and other sources, including operating revenue from their current site.
They have set an aggressive timetable with an April 15 fund-raising deadline, followed by a ground breaking at the Clearwater City Hall site six months later in October 2015.
“If at some point we don’t feel as though we can accomplish this, we will continue just to expand on Island Estates. We are not going to jeopardize the institution,” said Frank Hibbard, a CMA board member and former Clearwater mayor.
Hibbard and Yates revealed the new plans and budget to media, local government officials and business leaders Friday at the current home of movie star dolphin, Winter, a wastewater treatment plant turned marine rescue lab on Island Estates that has become an international tourist attraction since the 2011 release of Dolphin Tale.
The novel design appears to be a departure from CMA’s first ambition to build a new facility that rivals the nation’s greatest, busiest aquariums. But the new emphasis on the group’s active marine rescue program may have a stronger appeal to their core audience – fans of Winter.
Those fans likely will flock to theaters for Dolphin Tale 2, which opens Sept. 12, to see stars Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd with the dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail and other rescued sea creatures, something guests can watch staff members do every day at the new aquarium.
While the facility will have conventional exhibits such as a two-story coral reef tank, a stingray touch pool and a large tank featuring various indigenous fish, the emphasis will be on showing off CMA’s rescue, rehabilitation and release program.
Families can watch staff examine an injured loggerhead turtle in a lab and children can use a computer touch screen to go through the steps of deciding whether a rescued dolphin is ready to be released into the wild.
Kids can get a closer look at the animals in one of the more unusual marine habitats where they will be able to crawl through a clear, acrylic tube inside a sea otter tank.
To come up with a less traditional – and less costly – approach to building the new aquarium, CMA hired the St. Louis architectural firm PGAV, a leader in aquarium and zoo design.
What remains to be determined is how the redesign will impact attendance estimates of 1.2 million a year in a feasibility study earlier this year that was based on a more traditional facility.
The lower construction costs should boost its financial viability, Hibbard said.
“Understand when you reduce the costs by as much as we have, it helps the numbers fairly significantly,” said Hibbard, noting consultants at AECOM planned to release an updated study by the end of this year that will assess likely attendance.
Aquarium officials are timing their public fundraising effort with the September release of Dolphin Tale 2, which they hope will draw both large and small donors to help them reach their $16 million capital campaign goal.
Those donations could be as small as $1 in a digital crowd sourcing program run by a company that helped raise money for President Obama’s election.
The lynch pin to the aquarium’s success, though, will be public funds.
By the end of the year, CMA plans to approach the Tourist Development Council with its request for $1.5 million a year in bond financing that would come from a small portion of the county’s 5 percent bed tax collections devoted to big projects that boost tourism.
“All the public officials we’ve talked to see the wisdom in a new facility in downtown, they understand the economic impact this facility here has had and that we’ve been successful despite working out of a wastewater treatment plant,” Hibbard said.
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos praised the new designs, which he said emphasizes the aquarium’s rescue mission rather than making it a typical attraction.
“It is going to be a unique facility. It’s not going to be an aquarium. It has never been intended to be an entertainment site,” said Cretekos, who serves on the Tourist Development Council.
Voters in November gave CMA permission to lease the site of the downtown city hall in a citywide referendum, but the finalized lease will be contingent on the aquarium securing the necessary construction funds.
A preliminary deal calls for the aquarium to repay the city $7.5 million plus interest over time to replace the aging City Hall, followed by annual payments of $250,000.