Prior aquariums have failed in Pinellas County. Will the Clearwater Marine Aquarium proposal be one more part of history? CMA only released the executive summary of the promised feasibility study prepared by its consulting firm AECOM, which shows that the CMA attendance is falling significantly short of the levels expected for a major intellectual property as the CMA is alleged to be. Anyone analyzing the CMA proposal for a $160 million, 200,000 square foot facility on the current city hall site should have great concerns about the viability of the CMA dream. This should be an especially great concern because of the proposed 60-year lease contained in the non-binding memorandum of understanding between the City of Clearwater and the CMA. Approximately 60 years ago, “Marine Arena” aquarium opened at John’s Pass on Madeira Beach. It was called the “West Coast’s Largest Aquarium” and quickly became a top local tourist attraction. Visitors came to see marine life up close in a family friendly atmosphere. The main attraction was “Paddy the Porpoise,” a 300 pound dolphin that performed three shows a day.
During each show, Paddy would blow a horn, throw a beach ball, jump, spin, splash, wave and do other voice command tricks that wowed the crowd. Near the end of the show some lucky child would be picked from the audience. It was that child’s job to hold a clothes pin that had a fish on the other end. Paddy would leap into the air and snatch the fish to the delight of everyone watching. The Marine Arena closed in 1965, 12 years after it opened. Almost 50 years ago, the “Aquatarium” opened in 1964 on nearly 15 acres along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico in St. Pete Beach. It was called the “World’s Largest Marine Attraction” and had a gold geodesic dome on top of a 25 foot deep circular tank. Crowds came to see “Floppy,” a dolphin that could leap 25 feet into the air. Floppy was called “The World Champion High-Jumping Dolphin.” In 1976 the Aquatarium, due to declining ticket sales, rebranded itself and changed its name to “Shark World.” The blockbuster movie hit at the time was a terrifying thriller called “Jaws.” Shark World was the local venue created to satisfy the shark curious crowd. The Aquatarium/Shark World closed in 1977, 13 years after it opened. Does any of the above sound similar to what is happening on Island Estates every day? Both of these local aquariums were created without tax payer assistance but what if this was not the case? Could you imagine Madeira Beach or St. Pete Beach just now ending or nearing the end of a 60 year commitment to support those aquariums? A lot can change in 60 years. Is this the gamble you want to make? Is this the gamble you want to make for your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? If the proposed CMA aquarium fails, as is likely, the CMA will be begging the City of Clearwater to provide taxpayer funding to keep the Island Estates facility open. You can prevent this now by saying no. Yours truly, Tom Petersen, Clearwater In March, Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates released only the 21-page executive summary of an economic study regarding its proposed $160 million downtown expansion plan. The full study was not released because it contains “confidential” trade secrets. The summary forecasts an average annual attendance of a million visitors and it predicts an annual operating profit of $5.6 million in the next decade. A disclaimer at the beginning of the study reads: “AECOM makes no warranty or representation that any of the projected values or results contained in this document will actually be achieved.” A majority of voters last fall authorized the city to begin negotiations on leasing the downtown waterfront property where city hall now stands to the aquarium for 60 years. If CMA does not have its entire project financing in place by Aug. 1, 2016, the city council can still pull the plug.