Gloves are off as the referendum debate heats up

CLEARWATER – With less than two weeks to go before voters decide whether to permit the City of Clearwater to amend its charter and allow for a 60-year lease of the city hall property to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, both sides of the debate are pulling out all the stops.
They've been pleading their case through e-mails, mass postal mailings, robocalls and lively debates before neighborhood associations.
The Friends of Clearwater took a step further this past weekend and hired a plane to circle the skies above the Clearwater Jazz Holiday at Coachman Park, towing a banner with the message, “Save the bluff. No waterfront giveaway. Vote no.”
Because the referendum is so hotly contested, the Gazette offered each side an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind the pro or con view. The guest columnists are:
• Frank Dame, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who backs the referendum.
• Joseph Corvino, a resident of Water's Edge condominiums downtown and a member of Friends of Clearwater, which opposes the referendum.
Vote yes 'with optimism' on the aquarium referendum
By Frank L. Dame
On Nov. 5th, the citizens of Clearwater will be voting to make a very important decision that could materially affect downtown Clearwater and our local economy. A no vote means everything remains status quo, nothing changes. A yes vote will provide the city and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) with an opportunity that could lead to a new downtown aquarium and stimulate expansion of existing and new business formation. It also could create family oriented activities that can guide the way to a renewed and vibrant downtown while increasing tourist taxes through visitor stays in our local hotels.
There has been much controversy on this issue over the past few months, with opponents saying that CMA's project is too risky; the commensurate traffic will cause congestion in downtown streets; and that if the aquarium is not successful, a default would fall on taxpayers' backs. They say providing the land to CMA is a waterfront giveaway, and they don't believe the money can be raised to complete the project. If it is completed, they don't believe in the projected attendance numbers. They also have inferred that city council members are disingenuous and not looking out for the public.
 To sum it up, all of this thinking is very negative and full of pessimism.
A few years ago, negative thinking like this could have sunk a struggling CMA. Instead, we were determined to find a way to not only make it survive but flourish. We put together a business plan and even before the movie were growing revenues by 30 percent a year. Winter came to us almost dead.  Our animal care team could have given up on her but didn't, and she survived. 
Back when we were discussing a book deal, some said it would never happen. There have been four books written about Winter, and two more are in the works. When we talked about a possible movie, many said it was a pipe dream. Four years later, “Dolphin Tale” was released, and now the sequel, “Dolphin Tale 2,” is being filmed. Currently, there are discussions occurring with Alcon Entertainment regarding a possible TV series following the sequel. I'll bet the pessimists are saying that won't happen, either. 
We packed a broken-down, 50-plus-year-old, 53,000-square-foot former sewer plant with 750,000 visitors last year.  Let me tell you, that was a challenge, but our team did it with positive and creative thinking!
This referendum is asking voters to use (not own) public land to build a new aquarium. CMA is offering to pay to replace an aging city hall that, at some point, would otherwise have to be replaced by taxpayers. CMA also is paying the cost of this referendum, not taxpayers.  The project is being structured so that if we are not successful in the future, taxpayers will not be responsible for the debt.  City hall will not be demolished until the money is raised.  The city is not giving CMA the land; we would be leasing it and paying more than $20 million in rent over the lease term.
Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties last year hosted 23 million visitors. This is almost three times the number of visitors to the entire state of Hawaii. Orlando is 90 minutes away from us with more than 41 million visitors coming to that area each year.  With our beaches and proximity to this number of visitors, we believe we can be successful and easily exceed our projected break-even attendance. 
What happens with negative thinking?  Nothing!  Please cast your vote with optimism on Nov. 5th, and perhaps a new aquarium and a renewed downtown will become a reality.
The writer is executive vice president of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. (727) 953-8662.
Vote no to 'overly ambitious plan' that carries 'tremendous risk'
By Joseph Corvino
The City of Clearwater is holding a referendum to create a special exemption to the city charter that would allow for a 60-year lease of the city hall property to Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The impetus for this, as told by CMA Chief Executive Officer David Yates during a city council meeting in March, was: “We saw early on that Winter's story could be big. So we went for it.”
Thus, Winter, a dolphin widely known for having a prosthetic tail, is the driving force to modify the city charter to allow for a $160 million aquarium. Even an editorial published in the Tampa Bay Times on March 8 stated that this is “betting a lot on one dolphin.”
Many of the city's top leaders have repeatedly assured taxpayers that no general revenue funds will be used to design, construct, operate or maintain the aquarium and that taxpayers will have no obligation for its debt.
The guarantee seems to be a stretch. Thus, members of the Friends of Clearwater Coalition have been asking the tough and unpopular questions of our elected and appointed officials, who in some cases have push backed and been less receptive to hear the facts.
Why? Well, hold on to your wallets and keep your emotions in check as we look at their claims.
A free city hall? Not likely.
First of all, the taxpayers will be hit up front with paying for the cost of building a new city hall at an estimated $7.5 million. Keep in mind the building replacement cost is only an estimate; there is no guarantee or definitive replacement plan. Further, neither feasibility nor engineering studies have been conducted to determine whether a new city hall actually is needed. The city refuses to do such a study. Why?
Secondly, CMA will refund the city at 50 cents per ticket sold, which is why ticket sales are critical to this discussion.
Based on the repayment agreement and CMA's “guesstimate” in regards to expected attendance, it could take decades before the replacement cost is repaid.
Each time residents inquire as to what is driving CMA's proposed annual attendance expectations, CMA seems to readjust its projection. The moving target went from an original estimate of 2.5 million visitors, revised down to 2 million visitors and the latest 1.5 million visitors. Aquarium officials say they only need 975,000 visitors each year for the next 60 years to break even. Yet after the release of the “Dolphin Tale” movie, CMA said attendance peaked at only 750,000. Therefore, these projections are useless, if not absurd, in helping us decide how to vote.
Again, the Times editorial of last March stated, “… Officials have to convince voters that attendance projections are reasonable.”  And a subsequent editorial last April stated, “… Clearwater officials boldly predicted it will draw 2.5 million annual visitors. That seems a bit fishy.” 
The $160-million-dollar aquarium:  Financial experts have been quoted in a local daily newspaper as saying that the numbers just don't work. For example, in an Aug. 9 article, the Times quoted Howard Sachs, a senior vice president at Raymond James, that “although he's rooting for the aquarium to be a success, the numbers don't quite add up for him. And if it goes belly up? 'When hotels fail, sure, there are usually others who will step in, especially at a bargain price, but I don't know if there is a long line of people waiting to run an aquarium.' ” 
Give them a chance? Former Mayor Frank Hibbard told citizens at a recent forum, “All we're asking for is a chance to go out and raise the money.” The coalition is very concerned that the city should not simply execute contracts in good faith or “chance” with the expectation of repayment in a timely manner and then choose to ignore the 800-pound shark in the room. 
The advocates like to refer to the successes of the Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 with a $250 million seed gift from Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. The aquarium was ultimately built for $300 million. The Monterey Aquarium, which opened in 1984, was considered a state-of-the art aquarium for that time, and 100 percent of its $55 million construction cost was paid through a gift from Silicon Valley titan and philanthropist David Packard.
What advocates don't want you to know are the not-so-successful stories like:
• The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is costing its taxpayers millions each year. The facility itself will not be sustainable over a 60-year lease. If history is any indication, this project, like the millions spent on both the Capitol Theatre and Carpenter Field in Clearwater, will require millions more in taxpayer subsidies.
• Within just a few months of its opening, attendance at the Ocean Journey aquarium in Denver fell drastically. As a result of its failure to meet attendance projections of more than a million visitors per year, the aquarium was not able to make payments on its high construction debt. It went into bankruptcy for a $62.5 million debt. It was sold the next year for $13.6 million and later reopened as the Downtown Aquarium.
• City supporters of the $120 million Aquarium of the Pacific in Los Angeles once promised the facility would require no public funding. Its feasibility study forecasted that it would draw crowds of 2 million people a year, more than enough to pay for construction, operation and debt service. Two years after it opened, leaders sought taxpayer money to help cover operating costs and free up other money to make interest payments to bond holders as attendance fell.
• Even entertainment facility SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. is slashing midweek ticket prices in the wake of a 9 percent second-quarter attendance drop.
Downtown and traffic: To depend on tourists to develop downtown goes against every plan, vision or study. Even Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said in 2011 that “tourism is cyclical and we cannot depend on tourists.”
The best way to redevelop a sluggish downtown is to encourage residential development. In fact, a Brookings Institute study stated a successful downtown requires that housing is a priority; it should be a well-defined and branded; it must be accessible, clean and safe; and regulations must be streamlined and be supportive of residential growth.
Only after public pressure did city engineers conduct a traffic analysis that predicted there would be significant problems including gridlock in downtown, which would in turn make beach access a nightmare. It also determined that fixing these problems could be extremely costly, if even possible. If the decision is made to improve downtown streets, these costs would come out of the city budget.
More than fair value for the “bluff”: The six acres of prime waterfront land have been the jewel of the city's properties for many years. It is “priceless” to the citizens; the county appraisal value is $16.5 million. What will the taxpayers really get? The city's own voter fact sheet reads that the lease compensation “… may be less than fair market value.”
Moreover, there will be hidden costs associated with the demolition of the city hall building and relocation of staff, facilities and other infrastructure that will be a burden on the taxpayers.
Only conclusion possible: This idea is an overly ambitious plan involving a very uncertain business expansion. This plan puts taxpayer dollars and public land at tremendous risk. For these reasons we urge a no vote!
Joseph Corvino represents the political action committee Friends of Clearwater.
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