Sarasota City Commission is reaping what it sowed.
ote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium has decided it wants to build its new aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park near University Town Center. That has stirred some controversy on the Sarasota City Commission and should be a cause for commissioners to think about how they approach development projects.
Mote’s Feb. 8 announcement came after years of looking for a viable location in the region. It hopes to build a new $130 million aquarium at Benderson Park while keeping its research facility at the current location on City Island employing about 200 research staff.
Obviously, Mote needs to do what is good for Mote to accomplish its mission, and that should drive its location decisions. It is easy to see that the Benderson Park location has some real upsides. There is room for various options in laying out the facility, including plenty of parking. It is right next to the Interstate 75 for easy access for visitors from all over the region. And the County Commission has proved far easier to work with on siting major facilities than has the City Commission.
The main rival location in Sarasota was on the bayfront. That would have the advantage of easy accessibility to downtown and visitors staying in downtown hotels. And it might tie in well with other future visitor-oriented projects that might be built on the bayfront. But at the same time, it would bring a definite parking and transportation challenge because so many of its visitors drive in from around the region. It would also claim space that is being considered for other uses like various arts centers and green space. So there would be some real tradeoffs in having Mote located there.
Of course creative approaches could offset tradeoffs in either direction. If Mote were at the bayfront, someone could build a parking structure somewhere close to the I-75 and provide shuttle service to the aquarium and perhaps other locations, helping out-of-town visitors access the city without adding to our congestion problems. On the other hand, someone could also provide shuttle service from the downtown hotels and others in the area to a location at Benderson Park, and vice versa, so visitors can enjoy both.
City Commissioner Hagen Brody vehemently opposes locating the aquarium at Benderson Park rather than the bayfront. He argues that failing to acquire a flagship facility like this for the downtown area is a real failure on the city’s part and a “huge blow.”
Whether you agree with him or not on which location is better, you have realize the City Commission is reaping what it sowed. In 2014, the commission rejected a request by Mote to include its aquarium in the plan for the bayfront. The commission said no, saying it would not make decisions until the long-running bayfront planning process is finished. Moreover, the commission directed staff not to put this issue on its agenda until the planning process is done.
In the real world, which includes Mote, businesses have goals to achieve and waiting years on a planning project with no set end date or outcome is enormously costly. Mote had to move on, and did.
This has become a familiar story in Sarasota. The city commissioners want Mote in the city, they want affordable housing projects built, they want the North Trail redeveloped, they want Ringling College to grow and succeed. But they refuse to acknowledge that those entities have goals and needs that have to be met before they will make those investments. Economics actually matters, not just city plans. As long as the city refuses to acknowledge those goals and needs, its policies and attitudes will drive those projects away.
So the Mote aquarium is going to be outside the city. Affordable housing projects are going to Bradenton and North Port. The North Trail remains an eyesore. And Ringling College can’t make sensible changes to rationalize the road pattern within its boundaries. These are not accidents or acts of nature, they are outcomes of the decisions the City Commission has made.
Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.