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Editorials

Shoring up plans for Clearwater Aquarium

Published:   |   Updated: November 19, 2013 at 11:43 AM

It’s encouraging to hear Clearwater Marine Aquarium officials talk about reducing the cost and size of a proposed new aquarium along the bluff where City Hall now sits.

The initial $160 million estimate to build the aquarium might be reduced by $60 million or more with construction changes they say will not affect annual attendance projections that top 2 million.

The talk comes after Clearwater voters gave their approval to leasing city land as a site for a new facility to replace the existing aquarium on Island Estate’s.

Scaling back the cost is something the aquarium’s backers quietly contemplated before the vote and something they are right to pursue. It will result in a more realistic project.

As we said when recommending voters reject the initial proposal, the three-story, 200,000-square-foot aquarium pitched before the vote is too ambitious and would put the facility in direct competition with The Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa, hobbling the attendance of both facilities.

A more compact facility that focuses on the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s core mission of rescue and rehabilitation would be a better fit.

It also lessens the amount of money aquarium backers need to raise before getting the city’s approval to build, a salient point now that a survey shows a majority of the county’s Tourist Development Council appears disinclined to contribute a portion of its bed-tax dollars toward an aquarium.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium has until August 2016 to raise the funding or lose its chance at leasing the land. In addition to seeking bed-tax dollars, the aquarium’s backers are pursuing private donations, federal and state grants, and special taxing district revenues.

The aquarium has promised to contribute $7.5 million in ticket revenues toward a new city hall and to give $250,000 annually to the city during the life of the 60-year lease to use the city land.

Whether a scaled-down facility could generate the revenues needed to cover overhead and fulfill those promises are questions a feasibility study may soon answer, and that Clearwater City Council members will need to scrutinize.

The phenomenal success of Winter the dolphin as a tourist draw is driving this project.

The 2 million annual attendance projection seems beyond reach, and even the more modest projections of 750,000 or 1 million annual visitors needed to remain solvent looks to be ambitious. But voters gave the green light to pursue the project. A scaled-back project will at least increase the odds that Winter’s new home will be on solid financial ground.

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