Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium wants to relocate its aquarium. Why is the organization choosing I-75 over the bayfront?
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium CEO Michael Crosby thinks the organization has found the ideal home for a planned $130 million aquarium project.
Mote announced its plans to relocate its aquarium operation from City Island to Nathan Benderson Park at a Feb. 8 press conference. The announcement also launched a $130 million fundraising campaign, and set target groundbreaking and opening dates in 2019 and 2021.
Crosby stressed the five-acre parcel at Benderson Park, located in the unincorporated county near Interstate 75 and University Parkway, was the first choice for the new Mote Science Education Aquarium. Although Mote hasn’t gotten approval to use the county-owned land yet, the organization is excited to move ahead with its pursuit of the property.
“Within the past year, it’s become more and more apparent that this site is really heads above everyone else’s site,” Crosby said.
That may be hard to reconcile for those who remember how, in October 2014, Crosby appeared in front of the City Commission and asked the board to reserve a five-acre parcel along the bayfront near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for a new Mote aquarium. In a 3-2 vote, the board declined Crosby’s request.
Instead, commissioners directed Mote to work through the ongoing grassroots planning effort to redevelop the bayfront. But after the meeting, Crosby said Mote would expand its search for a mainland home for a new aquarium.
Mote’s pursuit of a new aquarium was tied to its 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan. Moving the aquarium was designed to facilitate the expansion of Mote’s research work at its City Island campus. Mote hopes to eventually renovate that campus with state-of-the-art buildings.
The move allows for expansion of the aquarium, too: The proposed four-story building at Benderson Park would be more than twice the size of the existing aquarium.
When the city rejected the request for bayfront land, Mote continued a wide-ranging search for a mainland home that included sites outside of Sarasota County. Mote continued to consider the bayfront, too, but Benderson Park’s proximity to the I-75 corridor made it an increasingly attractive option as the due diligence work went on.
Mote shared a litany of statistics that led to the decision to settle on Benderson Park. Exposure was a major priority. The site would expose the aquarium to an average of 43 million drivers each year. More than 3 million people would be within an hour’s drive of the aquarium, which Mote expects to bring in 700,000 visitors in its first year.
“It really is a nexus point between Manatee County and Sarasota County — as well as a nexus point for the entire region here in Southwest Florida,” Crosby said.
Leaving the city
Despite Crosby’s declaration that Nathan Benderson Park is where Mote wants its aquarium to be, City Commissioner Hagen Brody was upset to learn the city couldn’t do more to keep Mote’s expansion within its borders.
“Now that they’re at the point they’ve built this brand, they’ve developed into an organization that’s willing to invest $100 million into an aquarium, an attraction that’s going to have a significant economic impact — they’re going to go outside of the city limits?” Brody said. “That’s frustrating.”
He didn’t take issue with Mote for making decisions the organization thought was in its own best interest. But he was angry that City Manager Tom Barwin didn’t do more to update the commission on Mote’s exploration of new aquarium homes.
Barwin pointed out that, in 2014, the commission also said it didn’t want to discuss any organization seeking a spot on the bayfront until the planning process was complete. He added that Mote knew traffic issues constrained its ability to grow the aquarium on City Island — and suggested the same issue could exist on the bayfront.
Barwin thinks the city and Mote will continue to have a strong partnership. He didn’t want people to lose sight of Mote’s commitment to making City Island the organization’s research headquarters.
“To quote Dr. Crosby, he’s hopeful that particular campus will become the Silicon Valley of marine science research,” Barwin said.
Sarasota Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said Mote is an important partner, but she didn’t want to see one organization bypass the ongoing bayfront planning effort just to keep the aquarium within city limits.
“We’ve never closed that door to Mote in terms of a possible footprint, but it wasn’t appropriate to make a pre-commitment,” Eddie said.
The commission is scheduled to discuss the Mote news Feb. 20. Ahead of that meeting, Barwin said it’s possible that Mote’s vision for an aquarium wouldn’t have ended up meshing with the community’s vision for the bayfront anyway.
“I’m not saying a big Mote Marine aquarium on the bay meant this, but I think from the early feedback we’re hearing, people don’t want the bayfront to be turned into this imagery of a tourist trap,” Barwin said.
The city manager also isn’t treating it as a foregone conclusion that Mote’s plans for a Benderson Park aquarium will actually come to fruition.
“They have some big hurdles to cross,” Barwin said. “They’ve got to get the permission to expand there, which isn’t done yet, and they’ve got $100 million to raise.”
Crosby said Mote had some preliminary conversations with county officials ahead of the Feb. 8 announcement, but that more serious discussions will take place now that the plans are public. He acknowledged the possibility that the county won’t agree to lease the land to Mote, but he didn’t see it as a source of concern.
“There’s always a backup plan, but I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t see how beneficial this is for our community,” Crosby said.
In a written statement, the county declined to comment on the proposal until Mote submitted more information. Through a spokesperson, county staff declined to even discuss a possible mechanism for setting up a lease agreement for a new structure on county-owned parkland.
“While they have shared preliminary information about their project, no request or proposal has been provided,” the county statement said. “Until that time, staff cannot speculate on Sarasota County’s role in their new facility. We look forward to hearing more details.”
“There’s always a backup plan, but I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t see how beneficial this is for our community.” — Michael Crosby
County Commissioner Mike Moran, present at the Feb. 8 announcement, said he was excited by the plans and would “do everything in (his) power” to keep Mote in Sarasota County. He said he would need to get more details before fully committing to the project, but he didn’t seem troubled by the level of information available.
“I’m very confident Dr. Crosby and his leadership team will get us through all that detail,” Moran said.
Crosby said its new Oceans for All fundraising campaign would attempt to secure $130 million from philanthropic donors, public entities and corporate sponsorships. Although Crosby isn’t sure how much public funding Mote will need, Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley said the construction of a spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves in North Port will limit the tourist tax funding available.
“That has now completely maxed out all potential tourist tax funds for at least the next two or three years,” Haley said.
Still, if Mote can obtain the necessary funding and approvals, Haley said it would represent a boon for tourism within the county. She said Mote’s plans dovetailed nicely with ongoing expansion efforts at The Ringling and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
“You’re really looking at an era where all of our attractions are doing major upgrades,” Haley said.
Crosby remains confident that Mote can achieve its vision on the timeline it has outlined. And, although outside attention has been focused largely on the new aquarium, he emphasized the plans were designed to enhance Mote’s aquatic research work within the city, as well.
“We’re not leaving — we’re growing,” Crosby said. “This is part of what Mote has always been doing and part of what is natural and normal for any entity, city or individual — to grow in a thoughtful, strategic way.”