The county is still mulling a 2018 request for $20 million toward the proposed Nathan Benderson Park project.
More than a year after Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium formally requested $20 million from Sarasota County to help fund an aquarium in Nathan Benderson Park, it’s still not clear if officials are willing to commit that much toward the project.
Earlier this month, however, the County Commission took a step toward providing an answer to Mote’s funding question. On Sept. 10, commissioners directed county staff to identify potential sources for the money, should the board choose to grant the request.
Commissioner Al Maio, who brought the topic up at the Sept. 10 meeting, indicated Mote had communicated some anxiety about the county funding request and its effect on the $130 million aquarium project, on which the organization hopes to begin construction in 2020.
Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby has said that receiving the full $20 million from the county is essential for the completion of the five-story, 110,000-square-foot project. As of May, Crosby said Mote had secured $34 million in funding toward the aquarium. But because the county has not had a substantive discussion about the request for $20 million, Maio suggested Mote officials were concerned.
“They feel like they’re in limbo,” Maio said.
Although the board agreed to research funding options, at least one commissioner signaled some concern. Commissioner Nancy Detert noted the commission had already agreed to let Mote use 12 acres in Nathan Benderson Park for a nominal price. She said she supported the project, but she was hesitant about the amount of money being considered.
“I cringe when you throw out a $20 million figure because I know I never committed to $20 million,” Detert said. “People in the community think we committed $20 million to Mote, and now they’re all coming and asking us for $20 million. It’s the most fashionable number of the year.”
Commissioner Mike Moran supported the prospect of developing funding options and indicated some support for granting Mote’s request if the organization secured financial commitments for the rest of the project.
“If they go out in this community — and frankly, around the globe — and raise $110 million for that facility, I don’t think it’s a stretch for the home community, Sarasota County, to pledge the last $20 million,” Moran said.
Maio and Moran said if the county indicated it was actively considering granting the funding request, it could make it easier for Mote to obtain funds from other sources, including other governmental bodies.
“A statement of some sort from us probably would help them because they’re about to enter the discussions a second time with Manatee and now, as the committees start forming in Tallahassee, at the state level for those contributions,” Maio said.
Kim Radtke, the director of the county’s office of financial management, did not provide detailed information on the process of identifying funding sources in a statement issued through a spokesperson.
“As staff continues to work on completing this board assignment, multiple opportunities are being explored to find the best option for both the requester and the community,” Radtke said in the emailed statement. “At this time, there is no designated timeline for when this will be reviewed or discussed by the board.”
A document included with the Sept. 24 commission agenda lists Oct. 10 as the “internal due date” for completing the assignment.
Mote did not make an official available for interview regarding the funding process. In a statement issued through a spokesperson, Mote said it believed the county’s request to identify potential funding sources is “significant forward momentum in our shared voyage.”
Although commissioners said Mote had communicated a sense of urgency while it works to obtain funding, Detert expressed some hesitation about moving too quickly.
“There’s some groundwork that has to be done,” she said. “I just know that everybody wants it done today, and maybe they just need to slow their train a little.”