Buried in his justification for voting against increasing Visit Sarasota County’s advertising budget, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta mentioned a big possible addition to the city of Sarasota — and indicated that it could already be in the works.
“A downtown aquarium, that's coming before us right now,” Barbetta said.
At the April 23 County Commission meeting, Barbetta argued that the increased tourist tax revenues generated this year should be used on facilities, rather than advertising. He mentioned other infrastructure improvements, such as a conference center, sports fields or an equestrian facility.
Barbetta said his remark about the aquarium wasn’t indicative of anything imminent, though he had heard comments in passing about Mote Marine Laboratory needing to expand in the future. It was merely another possible option at the county’s disposal.
Barbetta said if any such project were in the works, it would fall under the city’s purview. Still, if someone were interested in developing a downtown aquarium, Barbetta thinks it would be a good investment. He mentioned the city’s Cultural Park district and the former Quay property — bayfront land that both the city and various nonprofit groups have begun to look at for master planning — as possible targets.
He said the idea was partially attributable to an intercity trip area leaders took to Chattanooga, Tenn. During the visit, Chattanooga representatives extolled the value of the Tennessee Aquarium, credited with sparking the city's “Renaissance on the River.”
“They said the single thing that revitalized their downtown was when they built a downtown aquarium,” Barbetta said.
Asked about Barbetta’s comments, Mote Marine Laboratory President and CEO Michael Crosby said the organization was interested in increasing its presence. The group established a 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan in 2011, calling for significant growth in research and infrastructure. Part of that growth could include new facilities or renovating existing facilities, Crosby said.
Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley said Mote has worked with consulting firms as part of implementing that vision. Haley has been at the forefront of another visioning process, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20. That effort is focused on developing a plan for the bayfront property surrounding the Van Wezel — the same land Barbetta mentioned as a potential site for an aquarium.
Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 leaders say they have no particular projects in mind for the land, and Haley said she has only a passing familiarity with Mote’s plans for the future.
Even if a downtown aquarium isn’t imminent, Barbetta thinks the county should focus on projects that will become assets for tourists and residents alike.
“I'm a believer that the assets create the great place that we are,” Barbetta said. “We need to expand on those assets.”
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