On Monday, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium CEO Michael Crosby appeared before the City Commission to see if the board would endorse his organization’s plan for growth.
As the clock approached midnight following a lengthy meeting, he finally got his answer via a 3-2 vote: No — at least, not now.
After publicly declaring the intent to expand Mote — including a new bayfront aquarium on city-owned land near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — Crosby has been attempting to gather public support for those plans in advance of Monday’s commission meeting. He explained his goal was to secure an endorsement that would allow Mote officials to raise funds for subsequent phases of the organization’s plan, including the beginning of design and engineering work on the aquarium.
Although Mote has emphasized the importance of growing its research arm at its current City Island campus, that vision also includes the use up to five of the 42 city-owned acres of land that surround the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to construct the new aquarium. Crosby said that was an upper limit, and that this first step needed to be taken before any other details could be determined.
“There are a lot of questions that will need to be answered,” Crosby said. “What we are seeking is an endorsement of a vision that enables Mote to go out and do the heavy lifting of securing the funds that it will take to do the next phase.”
Public comment was divided, with several speakers representing other bayfront stakeholders encouraging no deviation from the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 visioning process in progress. Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 is a coalition of 15 local organizations working on a master plan and visioning process for the entire 42-acre swath of city-owned land, and has been endorsed by the commission.
Leaders from the Sarasota Garden Club, the Van Wezel Foundation and the Sarasota Orchestra advocated that all groups be given equal consideration through that visioning process. Former Mayor Kelly Kirschner also recommended that the city stay the course it established earlier this year.
“Sometimes process is just as visionary leadership as anything else, and sticking firm with process in the face of an overwhelming clamor to throw the process out the window,” Kirscner said.
Ultimately, the majority of the commission agreed. Vice Mayor Susan Chapman and Commissioner Shannon Snyder both worried that an endorsement of the vision was too significant a step at this point in the process, and said the city could be locked into a plan that has indeterminate public support.
“When we do this letter, we are creating an expectation, and that expectation will then be used for fundraising,” Chapman said. “Once the funds are in the bank, they'll say, ‘Oh, but we raised funds based on our expectation.’”
Commissioners Paul Caragiulo and Suzanne Atwell cast dissenting votes. Caragiulo downplayed the significance of a potential commission endorsement, arguing that any development would have to go through a significant review process before it could actually be built.
“(Mote is) just trying to see if the city is remotely receptive,” Caragiulo said. “Yes or no.”
The commission unanimously passed another motion encouraging Mote to continue to pursue a bayfront site through the Bayfront 20:20 process, but Crosby suggested that window could be closed.
“Mote (is) at a point now where we need to make some decisions, quite frankly, about whether we go forward with this path and invest more time and more energy into it,” Crosby said.
For more information about Mote’s plans, pick up a copy of Wednesday’s Longboat Observer and Thursday’s Sarasota Observer.
Contact David Conway at [email protected].