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Pier aquarium moves ahead on Madeira Beach plans

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: April 23, 2013 at 10:57 PM
MADEIRA BEACH -

Leaders of The Pier Aquarium announced Tuesday they’ve secured funding to begin construction of a $4-million high-tech facility in John’s Pass Village.

The family-friendly aquarium is set to reopen this fall as a 13,500-square-foot marine research center in Madeira Beach.

The Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium will start construction next month, buoyed by $2.7 million in loans, about the same time the aquarium that opened in 1988 closes along with The Pier in downtown St. Petersburg.

The new two-story building will dwarf the old aquarium in size and scope, with 31 exhibits focused primarily on current marine research updated in real time. It will also feature live sharks, large fish, jelly fish and coral reefs.

The aquarium’s centerpiece will be a six-foot globe hanging from the ceiling with a live data feed from the world’s oceans.

“Every time you visit Secrets of the Sea, you will experience a new story about the ocean unfolding,” said Howard Rutherford, the aquarium’s president and CEO.

Rutherford was joined Tuesday by the aquarium board, city and Pinellas County tourism officials and a group of hoteliers who have pledged to contribute more than $100,000 to the project.

Aquarium officials project they will attract about 250,000 visitors and 40,000 students annually, about double the old aquarium’s peak attendance, with 70 percent of them being tourists.

That represents a shift from The Pier location, which had about 50 percent of its visitors from out of the area, Rutherford said. In part, that’s due to the large number of tourists who flock to John’s Pass every year.

Gregg Nicklaus, president of the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center in St. Pete Beach, and a group of a dozen hotel owners including the TradeWinds Resort and the Don CeSar Hotel plan to support the aquarium financially.

The goal is to build an attraction that will strengthen the Pinellas beaches as a tourism draw.

“To be sure, there are a lot of great beach destinations in Florida,” said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

“The question is: What else do you have?”

Most of the initial funding to build the new aquarium comes from a $1.3-million construction loan from C1 Bank that was matched by Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization.

Aquarium officials still have a long capital campaign ahead, with a goal of collecting more than $5 million – $1 million more than what’s needed to open – so they can provide an endowment for the nonprofit facility, Rutherford said.

The aquarium also may be one of many attractions vying for a cut of the county’s bed tax dollars in the coming years after a bond for Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg is paid off in 2015.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium also wants a cut of that money for a planned $60-million expansion.

Last month, the state Legislature passed a bill making nonprofit aquariums eligible for county bed tax money.

The county collected about $28 million in bed taxes last year. That money is divided between destination marketing, beach renourishment, the county tax collector, reserves and servicing debt, mostly for Tropicana Field.

Secrets of the Sea is scheduled to open in November. It will be the second time the John’s Pass area has sought to draw visitors with an aquarium.

The area’s first aquarium, Marine Arena, opened in the 1950s with a 50,000-gallon tank and dolphin show but closed a decade later after a larger marine attraction opened in St. Pete Beach.


jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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