After buying a home and moving from the Chicago area to Clearwater over ten years ago my wife and I discovered the wonderful work being done by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) and immediately began pitching in and volunteering our time to help the struggling marine animal rescue hospital. But with new management and staff, a more supportive Board, and help from a little injured dolphin by the name of Winter who lost her tail after becoming entangled in a crab trap line, we have watched as CMA began to grow and mature in the ability to better carry out its mission of preserving our marine life and environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in education, rescue, rehabilitation and release.
During 2012, CMA experienced more growth than any year since it was founded in 1972. Awareness of its work became global in late 2011 with the release of Dolphin Tale, the heartwarming story of Winter who became a star because of her determination and CMA’s role in developing the first prosthetic tail for a dolphin. As a direct result of the excitement surrounding the film’s release, CMA became recognized as one of the foremost leaders in marine wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Because of this CMA’s attendance tripled in 2012 with over 750,000 guests visiting this former waste water treatment plant and 2013 continued to be extremely busy as well. And when the new movie sequel now being filmed is released in a few months the world will learn more about CMA and its work and crowds will continue to come to see the dolphin stars and their home.
Today my wife and I are still CMA volunteers and have watched this organization grow and prosper in its ability to better carry out its mission. But CMA has totally outgrown its aging facility and, with its global exposure brought about by two movies, it appears that the crowds will continue to come. As a result, CMA will not be able to provide the quality educational experience to its guests that a larger facility can provide. Expansion of the Aquarium is best suited to take place downtown where there is space to accommodate the volume of expected future visitors. A downtown location would offer additional parking and the space for a modern, world-class aquarium while providing the economic engine to allow CMA to re-focus its efforts at the Island Estates facility on the rescue and rehabilitation part of the mission.
Opponents to the project say it is a risky endeavor. Proponents say it is visionary and could provide huge economic benefits to downtown and local businesses as well as reduce traffic on Memorial Causeway and in Island Estates. CMA has proposed a financing structure to construct a new aquarium that places the financial risk fully on CMA. Neither property tax nor the City’s general fund dollars are at risk with the current proposal. CMA will not own the land on which the new aquarium will be built but will lease the land from the City and will build its own aquarium. And the City will not be guaranteeing any of CMA’s obligations. All CMA is asking for is permission from Clearwater’s voters to have the opportunity to raise the funds necessary to construct a new home downtown for its resident animals. That is what the referendum is all about.
If the referendum fails, CMA will continue its good work but will also have to try to determine how to deal with crowds, traffic and parking in its current location where there is just not enough space to accommodate all that. I believe this would be a lost opportunity for both CMA and for our City.