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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 3, 2014 3 years ago

Bayfront plan envisions $100 million aquarium

by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A confidential proposal for bayfront land made public in June with a price tag topping $300 million has placed several parties with connections to the plan in an uncomfortable position.

The proposal advocates for the placement of several amenities — including parkland, a performing arts hall, a hotel, a conference center and a $100 million aquarium — on a large swath of public land along the U.S. 41 corridor near 10th Street. Outlined in a PowerPoint presentation, the plan features the logos of six organizations: venture capital firm Seven Holdings, Arizona-based company Governmental Facilities Development Services, Core Construction, Hoyt Architects, Mote Marine Laboratory and the city of Sarasota.

It was the last logo that caught the eye of Vice Mayor Susan Chapman, who brought up the proposal at a June City Commission meeting.

Chapman said she had received a hard copy of the presentation when an anonymous source slipped it under her door. She said the city granted no authorization to use the logo. Beyond that, Chapman was worried a visioning process for city land near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — recently undertaken by a variety of nonprofit groups under the banner Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 — had gotten out of hand.

“Is the horse getting out of the barn without our participation?” Chapman said.

Chris Cogan, a co-managing member of Seven Holdings, said the proposal had nothing to do with Sarasota Bayfront 20:20. In fact, it predates the larger discussion surrounding the bayfront land.

Cogan said Seven Holdings began working with Mote in April 2013, as the marine research organization started to focus on a commercialization initiative. During that process, one discussion topic was addressing the group’s aging aquarium. Rather than upgrading their current facilities, Seven Holdings suggested Mote leaders consider building a new aquarium in a better location — namely, the bayfront.

As that work continued, Seven Holdings assisted in the development of a pair of economic feasibility studies. The plans were initially closely guarded, limited just to the Mote executive committee. In January, the entire Mote Board of Directors was made aware of the work Seven Holdings had contributed to, Cogan said. In response, board members voted unanimously to allow CEO Michael Crosby and the rest of the executive committee to pursue the plans further.

According to the presentation Chapman obtained — which Cogan said was a confidential document, used in a presentation to Mote officials — tax-exempt revenue bonds would fund the project. Chapman said she was concerned about the idea that the city would take out bonds to pay for the project, but Cogan said that was a misunderstanding of the plan.

Instead of the city, a nonprofit foundation would take control of the land used for the proposed facilities via a lease. That foundation would be responsible for governing the facilities, managing operations and maintenance and obtaining the bonds.

“This finance approach is designed to have little to no impact on the city’s balance sheet or debt capacity,” the presentation states.

Cogan confirmed the intention was to remove a financial obligation from the government’s shoulders.

“We’d structure the entire thing,” Cogan said. “What component of it the city or county would be asked to be put in — that hasn’t been determined yet. It’d be a fraction of the total cost.”

Mote did not make an official available for comment, instead issuing a statement from Crosby that said the organization was still conducting an internal strategic planning process. He added that Mote had not approved the use of its name or logo on any documents, and he downplayed the organization’s connection to the Seven Holdings plan.

“It would not be appropriate for us to discuss what others in the community have undertaken or presented beyond saying that any inclusion of Mote in plans not of our own creation have not been authorized nor approved by our leadership,” Crosby said.

Asked about the organization’s relationship with Seven Holdings and its role, if any, in developing the proposal, a Mote spokesperson declined further comment.

Virginia Haley, Visit Sarasota County president and a leader of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, said the group was not involved in the Seven Holdings’ planning process, though it had been made aware of the proposal before it became public.

Haley said she had also been made aware of three or four other concepts for the 75 acres of bayfront land around the Van Wezel the group was targeting. She said Sarasota Bayfront 20:20’s goal was to develop broad community involvement regarding the public use of the land before bringing in private projects.

“Our philosophy is: First, we have to build the community vision and principles for what the community wants,” Haley said. “That’s the priority, and then you can start to look at the other options.”

Visit Sarasota County Board Chairman Michael Klauber will speak at the July 7 City Commission meeting to provide an update on Sarasota Bayfront 20:20’s work. Haley said other proposals shouldn’t scare the commission from developing a master plan for the land. As for the Seven Holdings proposal, Haley said she hoped those involved would work with Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 — and suggested residents might not be receptive to a plan developed out of the public eye.

“I think the community has a track record for reacting negatively when pushed into a corner on things like this,” Haley said. “Hopefully, by having this broader, more visionary conversation in a positive way, we can make good things happen.”

Cogan said the principle parties behind the aquarium proposal have worked to fund billions of dollars worth of public-private projects — a valuable asset when it comes to moving from vision to reality.

“That’s the expertise we bring that I don’t think anyone else that’s entered this discussion has,” Cogan said.

Cogan said the group plans to continue working on the proposal. If it hadn’t been made public, he said the group was on track to reveal its plans by late July or August. Although he did not want to speak for Crosby, he said his impression was that the Mote CEO was eager to know whether the bayfront aquarium was a realistic possibility.

“If a new aquarium is not going to be realistic, he wants to know sooner than later,” Cogan said. “He doesn’t want to allocate resources to something that’s not going to come to fruition.”

Key Elements
A proposal for bayfront land includes a preliminary cost estimate for the following features:

$100 million — Mote Aquarium
$50 million — 300-room hotel
+ $40 million — future new orchestra house
$25 million — 1,600-space parking garage
$20 million — 60,000-square-foot conference center
$20 million — site infrastructure and public amenities

Update: Brian Jones, vice president of development with Governmental Facilities Development Services, said the price for the future orchestra house was a placeholder in the leaked presentation. The actual cost projection is still to be determined, but recent estimates put the price at more than $100 million.

Contact David Conway at [email protected].

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