City council agrees to terms on new downtown aquarium

CLEARWATER — After officials negotiated a better deal for the city, the council unanimously approved an agreement for the $160 million facility that Clearwater Marine Aquarium wants to build to house Winter the movie star dolphin and other aquatic animals.
The Hollywood version of how Winter lost her flukes and was fitted with a prosthetic tail was immortalized in the 2011 family drama “Dolphin Tale.”The film’s, and thus Winter’s, popularity has drawn visitors from all over the world, causing attendance to skyrocket at the existing marine animal hospital and aquarium in an old wastewater treatment plant on Island Estates.
The city council last week approved an agreement called a Memorandum of Understanding that outlines the terms and conditions that will allow the proposed 200,000-square-foot aquarium to be built on downtown waterfront property where city hall now stands.  A referendum to be held on Nov. 5 will seek voter approval to lease the land to CMA for 60 years.
In a work session two days before the council vote adopting the agreement, Mayor George Cretekos expressed concerns that CMA’s proposed payment of $7.5 million to replace city hall and the $150,000 per year to rent the land might not be enough.
The next day, CMA officials met with the city and raised the ante.
The revised agreement now provides that interest will be paid on the $7.5 million, City Attorney Pamela Akin said.  Funds to put toward the principal and interest will come from a 50-cent surcharge on each admission ticket until the debt is paid off. The annual land rent to commence after the $7.5 million is paid has been increased from $150,000 to $250,000 per year. 
“We deleted the phrase ‘for discussion purposes only.’ This document will be the document used as a foundation for future documentation,” Akin said.
CMA will be responsible for the costs of designing, constructing and maintaining the new aquarium and for demolishing city hall. The city has agreed to vacate that building within 180 days of receiving notice that all funding commitments are in place. 
If CMA does not have its entire project financing in place by Aug. 1, 2016, all bets are off.
Many members of the public and CMA officials were given the opportunity to speak before the council last week, and most offered glowing support for the project. The few who were opposed expressed concerns about the accuracy of projections relating to attendance and project costs, city liability and potential traffic problems.  Officials reiterated that the city will have no obligation to CMA’s creditors, and the land near Coachman Park will remain city property.
“If I thought the numbers didn’t make sense, I would oppose it,” Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said, adding that he felt the new aquarium would bring tremendous economic benefit to the area.
At the end of the council meeting, Mayor George Cretekos told the audience, “Please remember we are fortunate to live in sparkling Clearwater … as hot as it gets … we still have Winter 365 days a year.”
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