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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 23, 2020 7 months ago

Public funds for Mote aquarium not set in stone

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Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced a September groundbreaking for a new facility in Nathan Benderson Park, but the county’s financial support isn’t fully locked in.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

On Thursday, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced plans to break ground in September on a $130 million aquarium project in Nathan Benderson Park near Interstate 75 and University Parkway.

Mote officials shared an update on its Science Education Aquarium project at a news conference at Benderson Park, expressing exuberance about the state of the nonprofit’s plans. Mote Chairman of the Board Sam Seider said the project was “no longer a dream; it is a reality.” Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby offered a response to those who questioned whether the aquarium would actually get done after the organization unveiled the proposal in 2018.

“Hell yes, … we’re going to do this,” Crosby said.

A key component of Mote’s update was that it had secured more than $75 million in funding, including $20 million from Sarasota County. In January, the County Commission voted unanimously to support a commitment of $20 million toward the Mote project, with funds slated to come from tourist development tax revenue currently dedicated toward the promotional budget of tourism bureau Visit Sarasota County.

County officials have not yet finalized a plan for providing the funds to Mote. The board referred the item to the advisory Tourist Development Council for further review. Multiple commissioners said they wanted the county to be the “last money in” for the project, providing financial support only after Mote had secured the rest of the necessary funding to build the aquarium. Staff said the county would likely not issue a bond for the project until fiscal year 2022.

And that funding commitment took place prior to the local emergence of COVID-19 — and the corresponding effects on the economy and the county’s budget. That’s why, one month prior to Mote’s announcement of a groundbreaking, County Commissioner Charles Hines said the commission might need to reassess its financial support for the aquarium if the pandemic sparks a prolonged economic downturn.

“I was sad to hear the airlines think this is going to be a couple of years,” Hines said at the June 18 meeting of the Tourist Development Council. “It might not be. But if it is, … I think future boards would have to revisit [the funding allocation].”

The topic came up during a discussion of Visit Sarasota’s proposed promotional budget for county funds in fiscal year 2021, projected to decrease to $4.58 million from $6.42 million in the 2020 budget. Given the toll COVID-19 has taken on the  tourism industry, TDC board member Kathy Lehner asked whether it might be more prudent to keep the Mote funds allocated toward promotion.

“I know we’re all hoping that we’re going to be OK, but just like everyone else’s business, this is when you have to step back and take care of what brings people here,” said Lehner, the president and CEO of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what that money is earmarked for, and that’s what Visit Sarasota County does.”

Although Hines noted the funding partnership with Mote is not finalized, he also expressed optimism that the county would recover from COVID-19 before the payments to Mote are to begin.

“I want to be positive that Sarasota County’s going to rebound quicker than some cities that are maybe bigger,” he said.

Hines also said the state, which has committed $3 million toward the aquarium project, might need to reassess its ability to support Mote.

Mote did not respond to a request for comment ahead of publication.

If built, the 110,000-square-foot Mote aquarium will be located on 12 county-owned acres in Benderson Park. In March, the county agreed to execute a lease with Mote for the land. In 2019, the county approved an agreement with Mote that outlines a path toward selling the public land on which the aquarium would sit for $100.

At Thursday’s press conference, Mote officials said they expected the aquarium to be open by 2023.

East County Observer Managing Editor Jay Heater contributed reporting.

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