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Sarasota Thursday, May 23, 2019 8 months ago

County analysis of Mote project raises questions

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A consultant challenged projections associated with a proposed aquarium project, but Mote officials remain optimistic about receiving county support.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium advances plans for a $130 million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, Sarasota County is awaiting more information before considering a request for $20 million in funding.

At a May 16 event held to announce the Science Education Aquarium project’s construction team, Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said the organization had secured $34 million in philanthropic contributions to date. Mote has a three-pronged strategy for financing the state-of-the-art aquarium: private donations, corporate sponsorships and public funding.

In May 2018, Mote asked Sarasota County for two forms of support for the project: land and money. Although the commission agreed to let Mote use a 12-acre parcel in the park near University Town Center last year, the board has not yet seriously discussed the funding request.

Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho said staff has not developed options for funding the aquarium project, awaiting further instruction from the County Commission.

“Until we get that approval, no work has been done or quite frankly is planned to be done,” Botelho said.

In June 2018, the commission directed staff to conduct an independent review of the business plan Mote developed for the aquarium. The county hired a consultant, ConsultEcon, to evaluate the potential economic impact of the project and other aspects of the business plan.

In a series of memos from September to December, ConsultEcon raised several questions.

A Dec. 6 memo suggests Mote’s projected annual attendance of 620,000 might be too high, stating an estimate of 550,000 is more reasonable. That 11% lower projection would “have a significant impact on the net operating income of the new Mote Aquarium,” the memo stated.

The memo also focuses on the suitability of the proposed event space within the aquarium, the assumptions made in the economic impact estimates and Mote’s plans for the income derived from the new facility.

The report lists a series of attributes associated with the project, including the location, design and growing resident and tourist markets. Despite the questions, ConsultEcon concludes the proposed aquarium “would have the capacity to operate at a significant improved level over its current operations.”

Botelho said the county has requested additional information from Mote in an effort to address the topics ConsultEcon raised.

“Until we get an updated business plan from Mote, we’re kind of at a waiting point,” he said.

Mote did not respond to a request for comment regarding the status of the business plan. In an interview following the May 16 event, Crosby said he was encouraged.

“We have not met one person in either county, commissioners or staff, that have said anything other than, ‘This is an incredible vision; we want to work with you to make it happen,’” he said. “The challenge, as always, is: OK, how can we balance the competing needs?”

County Commissioner Mike Moran, present at the May 16 event, shared Crosby’s outlook. Moran said he did not want to speak for the rest of the commission, but he is a strong believer in the potential of the aquarium, particularly as an economic driver. He’s sensed nothing but support from other board members when the commission has discussed the project.

Manatee County commissioners have also expressed a desire to help support the aquarium plans. Earlier this week, the Manatee County Commission discussed giving funds to Mote, though that money can’t be used for construction of a project located in Sarasota County.

Mote is moving forward with work on the five-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium project. Some site testing is already underway in Benderson Park. Crosby said vertical construction could begin in 2020, with a project complete by 2022 or 2023.

Although it’s unclear when the county will discuss the financial aspect of the project, Crosby projected confidence about the level of support for the proposed aquarium.

“Everybody wants to see this happen,” Crosby said.

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