City Commissioner Hagen Brody admonished City Manager Tom Barwin about plans for a new aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, but other commissioners defended city management.
At a meeting Tuesday, City Commissioner Hagen Brody repeatedly criticized City Manager Tom Barwin over Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s decision to move its aquarium outside of the city, underscoring tension between the elected official and the city administrator.
After Brody repeatedly alleged the city manager should have done more to retain Mote’s aquarium operations, Barwin stated that Brody — who took office in May 2017 — didn’t start meeting with him weekly until three weeks ago.
“I don’t meet with you because I don’t trust you,” Brody responded.
The exchange was part of a terse back-and-forth during Tuesday’s commission meeting. In the wake of Mote’s Feb. 8 announcement that it planned to move its aquarium to Nathan Benderson Park, Brody has been critical of Barwin for failing to do more to alert commissioners that a move was imminent — and for not initiating a discussion about how to possibly retain the aquarium.
In his defense, Barwin pointed to an October 2014 commission meeting, at which Mote requested a reserved spot on the bayfront for an aquarium and the commission said no. At the time, the commission also directed staff not to place a similar item on the agenda for discussion until a grassroots bayfront planning process was done.
Brody took issue with that line of defense, arguing that an old commission made that decision and that the new board should have had an opportunity to revisit it. In response, Barwin suggested it was unreasonable to expect the administration to bring back old issues just because new commissioners had joined the board.
“No city I’m aware of has a new vote on every issue a previous commission ever voted on,” Barwin said.
Other commissioners spoke in defense of Barwin’s handling of the issue. They said Mote likely viewed the Benderson Park site as a more desirable location than anything available in the city — a claim Mote CEO Michael Crosby has echoed.
“We can’t tell Mote where to go,” Ahearn-Koch said. “This is their decision.”
Barwin offered reasons why the bayfront might be a constraining site for Mote, pointing to traffic as one logistical hurdle. Brody said the economic impact of a $120 million aquarium project — which Mote expects to bring in 700,000 visitors in its first year — would outweigh the effects of increased traffic.
“To see how easily that’s dismissed by Mr. Barwin is very startling,” Brody said.
He also pointed to the Players Centre for Performing Arts’ decision to move to Lakewood Ranch and expressed concern the city isn’t doing enough to keep up with its competitors to retain attractions.
“I don’t want to become an incubator for Lakewood Ranch,” Brody said.
Barwin responded by highlighting the success of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and the Urbanite Theatre as evidence the city was attracting and retaining its own cultural institutions. He added that Mote plans to expand its marine research operations at its City Island campus.
Brody concluded the discussion by saying he did not want the board — or Barwin — to take any action. At the same time, he said he still hoped the commission could revisit the topic in the future to attempt to persuade Mote to keep its aquarium in the city.