In advance of a planned visit to the City Commission, at which he will seek a commitment to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s plan for growth, Mote CEO and President Michael Crosby has been working to build community support for that vision.
Crosby recently began the public push for Mote’s expansion. Notably, those plans include a proposed aquarium on bayfront land near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Mote leaders have said the focus of the plan is on expanding the laboratory operations at the existing City Island campus, but the request for five acres of city-owned waterfront property is likely to garner the most scrutiny.
At an Argus Foundation event in September, Crosby said Mote has gotten an endorsement for its vision from the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County. During the event, he asked the Argus Foundation board of directors to put its support behind the proposal, too.
When he appears before the City Commission, Crosby hopes to have gathered an even broader base of support for Mote’s plans for expansion.
“This isn’t about Mote,” Crosby said. “This is about the community. We need you to be with us, all together, to present this to our leadership here in this city.”
Kevin Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Chamber of Commerce, said his organization’s support was largely tied to the growth of Mote’s research arm. Mote hopes to add another 12 Ph.D. scientists to its current staff of 33 Ph.D.s, and Crosby said the expanded laboratory campus could help draw experts in the field and leading organizations to work in Sarasota.
“The prospect of that in terms of job creation, international status and overall economic impact is really positive and interesting,” Cooper said. “It’s nice that we don’t have to recruit someone here to do that — we have a hometown organization that’s willing to take the lead on that.”
Cooper’s endorsement of the precise location of the bayfront aquarium at what is currently the Van Wezel parking lot was given with more trepidation. Cooper suggested more details needed to be divulged before the chamber could fully throw its weight behind the plan.
“While we support those overarching concepts that are enclosed on the Mote vision plan, there are a lot of things that need to be flushed out, so we’ll keep an eye out as those things surface,” Cooper said.
The resolution passed by the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County’s board of directors was less hesitant regarding the bayfront aquarium, encouraging the city to provide support for a site in the general vicinity of the Van Wezel parking lot.
The resolution also spoke to a potential conflict created by Mote’s public interest in bayfront land — the same city-owned land for which the group Sarasota Bayfront 2020 is working to produce a master plan and vision. The EDC, which has also offered its support for the Sarasota Bayfront 2020 vision, suggested that the two plans dovetailed with one another.
“We also believe Mote’s growth initiative aligns well with the Bayfront 2020 Vision Statement and encourage continued dialogue among all parties to foster community alignment,” the resolution states.
Michael Klauber, chairman of Visit Sarasota County’s board of directors and a leader of the Bayfront 2020 group, agreed with that assessment.
“They were one of the early signers onto the (Bayfront 2020) vision, in February as a matter of fact,” Klauber said. “They’re at the table, and they’re part of the process that we’re going through right now.”
During the city-endorsed visioning process for more than 40 acres of public land — and nearly 75 acres of land in total, when adjoining private properties are accounted for — Sarasota Bayfront 2020 has prioritized getting a broad group involved in the process and avoiding specifics on what goes where.
With Mote signaling interest in a specific location, Klauber continued to advocate for a more general process considering the other groups that would potentially be interested in new facilities on the land in question.
“It’d be impossible to say exactly where Mote would go, because we don’t know yet what the needs of the Van Wezel and the orchestra and potentially the ballet are,” Klauber said. “All of those organizations, like Mote, are in the process of reviewing their future needs.”
More details regarding both Mote and Sarasota Bayfront 2020’s plans should be available by the end of October. Crosby has indicated his intent to appear before the commission later this month, and Sarasota Bayfront 2020 plans to hold a public forum to gather additional feedback regarding its work on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, at the Sarasota Garden Club.
Above all, Klauber said, the process of developing the bayfront land in question needs to be carefully considered with significant community input.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime decisions that we’re making that we’re going to look back on in 75 years and say, ‘Were those good decisions or not?’” Klauber said.
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