County staff and Mote Marine officials have agreed on the details of future lease agreement for a Nathan Benderson Park aquarium.
Sarasota County has approved a term sheet outlining a land-use agreement with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium for the construction of an aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.
Under the terms outlined in the non-binding document, Mote would eventually secure a two-year lease of a 15-acre county-owned parcel near University Parkway and Interstate 75. Mote would ultimately either assume ownership of the property or enter a long-term lease with the county to operate a new four-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium on the site.
The County Commission unanimously approved the term sheet at a meeting today. Previously, the board expressed a desire to move quickly towards an agreement with Mote to support the aquarium project. At today’s meeting, commissioners described the term sheet as a meaningful step in pursuit of what they described as a signature project for the county.
“I think the public is just gonna go wild,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.
Mote is also seeking $20 million in county funding for the project, a request the commission has yet to thoroughly discuss.
After adopting the term sheet, county staff will continue negotiations with Mote officials on a more formalized agreement. Staff intends to complete those negotiations before Jan. 31.
The agreement is set up to accommodate Mote’s pursuit of land-use changes for the aquarium site. Currently, because the land is zoned for government use, Mote could not operate the aquarium if it owned the property. The short-term lease will be in place as Mote seeks to rezone the land to a new classification that would allow for the operation of a private aquarium.
Mote will pay $100 a year for the land under the short-term lease. If Mote secures the necessary land-use changes and has funding to complete the $130 million project, the property will convey to Mote for $100.
If the county denies the proposed zoning changes, or Mote cannot obtain the changes within 21 months after filing an application, the short-term lease would convert to a long-term lease. The long-term lease would run for 40 years and include five 10-year renewal options.
Before the county and Mote enter into a formal agreement, Mote must provide a site plan that includes a parking study and proposed points of access to the property. Mote must also ensure agreements with other property stakeholders are in place, including Benderson Park operator Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, Benderson Development and Florida Power & Light.
Mote officials discussed the aquarium plans with Manatee County officials at an invitation-only event Oct. 18. At that event, Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby discussed the organization’s three-pronged fundraising strategy, which includes a push for public, philanthropic and corporate money.
“It’s a big number, but we can do it,” he said.
The organization will share more details — including a fundraising update — at its Oct. 27 Oceanic Evening event.
Longboat Observer Community Editor Katie Johns contributed reporting.
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