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Sarasota Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 2 years ago

A Conversation with Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby

Following his announcement of plans for a $130 million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, Crosby shares Mote's next steps.
by: Katie Johns Community Editor

On Feb. 8, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium President and CEO Michael Crosby announced plans for a $130 million Mote Science Education Aquarium.

The new aquarium will “be alive,” Crosby told a crowd gathered at Nathan Benderson Park, home of the future building, and will allow for the expansion of ocean literacy in all visitors.

However, the organization still needs to obtain an agreement with the county to proceed with its plans.

Crosby spoke with The Observer regarding Mote’s next steps, operations plan, how they decided on Benderson Park and what will happen to the City Island location.

How did Mote come to the decision to build at Nathan Benderson Park?

We really had been, I think, doing a very scientific examination, if you will, which is a fair bit of research over about a five-year period. We’ve been looking at different sites. A lot of people, more people than I can remember, have come to us with every possible site that you might think of. A number of sites were actually things we took seriously, gathered data on, but in the end, this site is just so far superior in terms of visibility, accessibility and the potential for connection with and leverage with all the different things that are going on in there than any other sites that we looked at. (Crosby declined to comment on the other sites.)

How detailed have you gotten in the process so far when looking at things like traffic and parking?

There’s been a fairly comprehensive feasibility study that looked at it all. When all of these variables get added together in a final equation, the result of that equation is that is just far superior to any other site. The infrastructure is pretty much already in place, and if it isn’t in place, it’s already planned. That’s how I know 43 million cars go by every year. All of those things were looked at. Parking is something we’re also looking at. [We probably] need 500 parking spots. [We’re looking] at different options for how we can handle the parking, and we’re looking obviously to partner very closely so we don’t do this in isolation of the broader traffic and transportation for that immediate region. I would imagine there are opportunities for some level of new parking, but I think we would also look for more opportunities to leverage again with other entities and plan development in the area. We can’t do this in isolation.

How much of this development do you expect to be funded publicly?

It’s impossible to answer specifically at this time because we’ll have to see how the economy is going. We’ll have to see how much we’re able to secure from philanthropy sponsorships and corporations, as we are going forward in multiple lines of pursuit of funding in parallel trajectories, but all leading, obviously- if we’re going to stay on target with our goal to put a shovel in the dirt by the end of 2019- we need to secure at least commitments for all those funds by that time. If you’re looking at the timeline, it’s a four-year period with construction beginning at the end of the second year, so about the halfway point, with the ribbon-cutting at the end, so what happens is, we’re going to need pieces of funding all throughout that. For instance, our next contract is $2.2 million for schematic drawings, we have them all timed out. But commitments of funding over that four-year period are what we're looking at so by the time we cut the ribbon, we’re able to pay those off. It’s not that we need $130 million now, over that four-year period. We need commitments of that entire amount and bits of them to come in.  

How will the business model look? Will Mote be more of a tourist attraction or a research facility?

We have never had a model that separated our research from outreach and education, and we never will. That is the Mote model that has made us successful, as we have, fortunately, been able to be over 63 years. Science is the attraction. We understand that [visitors] look at this as an informal science. We want people to come, have a good time, look forward to being there, but when they walk out, we want them to have an appreciation for the advancement of science, to have actually learned something. That is so vital for the marine environment- to enhance their ocean literacy. We will never separate. We have to plan as a business and understand the ebbs and flows of attractions and never turn ourselves away from what we are first and foremost, which is a research organization.

How confident are you an aquarium can survive on its own?

Even if it was just an aquarium, there are so many models of success for just aquariums all around the world no matter where or near the ocean. So, the precedent is there. The business models are there, and it’s proven success because people want to come and see the exhibits and learn more.

Our advantage, I think that really what sets us apart and helps ensure our success in being so unique, is that we’re not just an aquarium. We’re a science education center that is telling the story of the science we do. I can put our scientists physically into our building. I can have our scientists underwater in Cuba and talking to people in this new science education center about the research that they’re doing.

What are you looking for from schools?

We would certainly love support from the local school boards, but given the very, very tight budget that schools have, I’m not looking for that [funding]. What we want to do, and what is critically important, is that we work very closely with all the school systems in the region to ensure that the coursework, the STEM education opportunities that we are going to provide, working closely with teachers on things that fit with their curriculum, with their requirements for student growth.

What are the next steps?

The next step for me is to probably have some of my staff pick up the phone and call the appropriate staff at the county and say ‘I’m not sure if you know about Mote’s vision, and we’d love to come by and talk to you about it. It involves us securing a long-term lease for 5 to 7 acres. Can we sit down and talk?’

If the county says no, do you have a backup plan?

There’s always a backup plan, but I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t see how beneficial this is for our community. This is an added benefit to the park itself right now. It will be a significant enhancement to the investment that the counties and state have already made in this park. Now what we’re talking about is a significant enhancement of that existing park for a much broader cross-section of our community.

I’m always an optimist. I always look at positives, and I have to believe with the leadership we have in Manatee County, with the leadership we have in Sarasota County, the leadership we have at the state level, the real primary need for innovative STEM education at all grade levels and STEM workforce development in research- and Mote being a leader in both of those- I just have to believe this is recipe for success.

A rendering of a proposed teaching lab at the new facility. Photo courtesy of Mote.

Why the announcement now before you have county approval?

A lot of philanthropic, corporate and public investors in this vision are going to want to know: are you going to have a long-term lease in order for us to secure [funds]? We needed to make a public announcement and be totally open with the county. We’re bursting at the seams on City Island. We are hiring more people. We are bringing in more scientists. We’re creating new, good-paying jobs in science and technology. The grand challenges facing our marine environment are getting more and more important to address.

Do you have plans to renovate the City Island facility once the new aquarium is open?

That’s some exciting stuff. When we move the aquarium off this island, think about that seawater plumbing system, all of those large aquariums that we have here. I want to convert all of that into more research infrastructure, like experimental chambers that exist no place else in the world because we have it because the aquarium needed it. Now we can convert that. I fully expect, and we would have to discuss with the city,  new state-of-the-art buildings here just like we did in Monroe County.

Will membership or admission price change?

We don’t see any changes in any of that. As with any organization over time, no matter where you are depending on inflation and other things, prices for admission will change. We don’t envision any wholesale change at this point in time. All of the existing memberships will be converted over to [the new facility]. If you’re a member of Mote now, that same membership is going to get you in the new aquarium.

Do you think this will affect visitation from those on barrier islands, such as Longboat Key? Do you think they will travel to Nathan Benderson?

I think they will. I don’t think they are going to be able to resist because it’s going to be such a phenomenal attraction. We’re still going to have daily public tours here on City Island for people to see the research laboratories, research tanks. The hospital is still going to be here and the turtle nursery is still going to be here. Education programs will be expanding here as well, so all of those programs, like the Mommy and Me programs, they’re just going to grow here as well. [There is] still plenty for our neighbors.

How many visitors do you get each year now and how will that change at the new facility?

The last few years, we were bumping between 320,000 and 340,000 [visitors] per year. The new facility is going to be constructed to accommodate 1 million guests a year. We don’t actually, necessarily want to have that many. I’m told we can handle it, but many of us are concerned. The Mote is an experience, and we don’t want to lose that. I’m forecasting that we should easily see 700,000 in the first year then level off in mid-600,000s the second year and then, as one might expect, fluctuate up and down.

I’m Katie. I’m the Longboat Observer community editor, which means I cover all people, places and things pertaining to Longboat Key. I graduated from the University of Missouri in 2016 with degrees in journalism and Spanish. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 364.

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