Both sides offer arguments on Clearwater aquarium issue

CLEARWATER — Residents at Tuesday night’s public forum heard rivaling predictions about Clearwater’s future if city voters approve a possible lease for a new $160 million aquarium.
Officials with Clearwater Marine Aquarium described 1 million or more people a year converging on downtown to see movie star dolphin Winter and other marine creatures, sparking an economic boost the city has been striving to achieve for years.
Opponents of the proposed aquarium cast doubt on whether Winter and other attractions could draw consistent crowds over the course of a 60-year lease and said residents should beware of turning their city hall over to what could be a risky business venture.
Almost 200 people came out to the discussion at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center on Gulf Boulevard, held about a month before a Nov. 5 referendum on whether to permit the city to lease the city hall property to the aquarium, which operates a marine animal hospital on Island Estates.
“Winter is a fading phenomenon,” said Tom Petersen, who has filed a lawsuit against the city over the referendum ballot language. “We’re getting something that is undefined, that we don’t know what it will be. They want us to vote yes, and they’re sort of saying, ‘Trust me.’ ”
Aquarium board member and former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard told the crowd there are good reasons for voters to trust CMA officials.
The aquarium’s construction costs and attendance estimates are based on careful consultation with financial advisers at Raymond James Financial Inc. and designers of Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, one of the most successful in the country, Hibbard said.
He suggested that economic conditions and financial structuring may result in a smaller aquarium than the currently proposed 200,000-square-foot facility.
“We won’t jeopardize our current enterprise by making a bad decision,” Hibbard said, adding that the city won’t approve the lease until the aquarium secures its financing.
Hibbard and CMA executive vice president Frank Dame verbally sparred with Petersen and Joe Corvino, both downtown residents and spokesmen for the opponents.
Dame assured the crowd that no general revenue from the city will be used to design, construct, operate or maintain the aquarium and that taxpayers will have no obligation for its debt.
In the event the new aquarium wasn’t a success, creditors would have only two options, Dame said:
- Replace management and operate the facility;
- Demolish the building, sell the assets and give the land back to the city.
It’s estimated the new attraction will provide about 300 new jobs and spawn more tourism and development downtown, creating a larger tax base for the city.
“I’m confident the city and the aquarium will work out an equitable agreement,” Dame said.
Corvino told the crowd, “We admire all the great rehabilitation work done by the CMA. I just wish we can get to the facts and take out the emotions.”
Petersen and Corvino argued that:
- The project hasn’t been vetted or gone through a level of due diligence in advance of the November vote.
- Attendance figures at the Island Estates facility indicate a 20 percent drop this year as compared to the 2012 peak of 750,000 visitors. “How many movies will it take to keep attendance up for 60 years?” said Corvino.
- The lease doesn’t take into consideration the Pinellas County property appraiser’s $16 million fair market value of the six acres of downtown waterfront property. The city’s $6.6 million appraisal conducted this spring accounts only for the replacement of the city hall building.
- The nonbinding memorandum of understanding outlining terms of the project could be changed without citizen input.
- Beaches, not an aquarium, have been and always will be the lifeblood of Pinellas tourism.
Forum moderator Steve Baker also took dozens of written questions from the audience that ranged from why the aquarium didn’t choose a private site for construction to the potential traffic problems that more than a million visitors annually could create downtown.
The forum, organized by the Sand Key Civic Association, drew a mix of opponents and supporters, including more than a dozen wearing blue “Vote Yes” T-shirts.
Association president Arlene Musselwhite was pleased with the turnout and said the forum drew residents from other neighborhoods in the city including Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and Harbor Oaks, and representatives of the Clearwater Neighborhood Coalition.
If residents approve the referendum, the city has the option to offer the lease to the aquarium but isn’t obligated to do so.
Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding negotiated between CMA and the city, the aquarium would pay $7.5 million, plus interest, to build a new city hall and $250,000 a year after that.
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