County staff will examine whether tourist development tax funds can help pay for a Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium facility in Nathan Benderson Park.
As it pursues a new aquarium in Nathan Benderson Park, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is asking for more than just land from the county.
At today’s County Commission meeting, the board discussed a request from Mote for a financial commitment of $20 million toward a $130 million aquarium project. Mote is also seeking a long-term lease for a nine-acre tract of county-owned land in Nathan Benderson Park, located near Interstate 75 and University Parkway.
The commission generally expressed a desire to help Mote bring the aquarium to Benderson Park, but board members were not yet certain whether the financial commitment Mote sought was feasible. The commission unanimously directed staff to vet Mote’s economic impact study regarding the aquarium plans and review the availability of tourist development tax funding for the project.
“I personally hope all the details can be worked out, because I can’t wait for the day when you enter our beautiful county and you see that building during the daytime and glowing during the nighttime — if we can work out the details,” Commissioner Al Maio said.
Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said he was excited about the commission’s reaction and optimistic the marine research organization would come to an agreement with the county. He also said a major financial contribution from the county was essential for the aquarium project to advance.
“I do not think this will be a successful endeavor without the significant one-time support of the county,” Crosby said.
In February, Mote announced plans to relocate its aquarium from City Island to Benderson Park. The organization unveiled renderings of a four-story, 110,000-square-foot facility with lighting on the side of the building that can display ocean-inspired imagery.
The organization revealed its plans — and a targeted groundbreaking date of 2019, and a targeted completion date of 2021 — without a firm commitment regarding the use of the county property. Since then, Mote representatives have discussed the parameters of a potential arrangement with county staff.
On May 17, Crosby sent a letter to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis detailing Mote’s desires. In addition to the land and $20 million, Mote is also seeking “an exclusive license agreement to conduct associated activities in and around” a retention pond near the site.
Lewis briefed the commission on the status of the Mote discussions today. He did not mention a timeline for when staff might return to the commission with a prospective agreement. He did, however, make clear where a potential county financial contribution toward the aquarium would come from.
“The only real source of funding for this would be the tourist development tax,” Lewis said.
The tourist development tax generates money from rental properties throughout the county. The county collected a record $21.3 million in tourist tax revenue in fiscal year 2017. Through April, revenues in fiscal year 2018 had increased 12.2% over the previous year.
Despite the record numbers, the county is facing a squeeze in its apportionment of tourist tax dollars. The 5% tax is divided into five 1% “pennies,” each dedicated to funding things such as beach renourishment, baseball stadium construction and maintenance, marketing and the arts.
The county’s 2017 decision to commit $21 million toward the construction of a new Atlanta Braves spring training complex in North Port limits what officials can spend in the next few years, said Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley. And even if more money becomes available, Mote isn’t the only entity seeking tourist tax funding. Haley mentioned The Bay Sarasota and the Women’s Sports Museum as two other projects that have expressed an interest in obtaining bed tax money.
Commissioner Charles Hines said the broad interest in tourist tax revenue meant the county would have to be deliberate as it apportions funding to various causes. He also cautioned against overcommitting resources in the midst of an ongoing boom period for local tourism.
“We can’t always think we’re going to have record year after record year after record year,” Hines said. “To tie up the use of those funds on a significant ask of $20 million, we really have to work through this as an entity and decide how we’re going to allocate those.”
Crosby said the request for $20 million was based in part on previous county investments in new tourism-based construction projects, such as the Braves stadium in North Port. He cited Mote’s economic impact study, which estimated an additional 350,000 people would visit the aquarium each year, as evidence the project would produce additional tourist tax revenue in the future.
He added that Mote plans to offer free education opportunities in the new aquarium to all Sarasota, and that the new facility would also help promote and enhance Mote’s marine research operations. Taken together, Crosby believes Mote is making a strong case to the county for a $20 million investment.
Crosby said he wasn’t concerned about other entities seeking tourist tax money, putting faith in county staff’s ability to sort through financing challenges and address multiple needs at the same time. Still, he added that he believes Mote is in a better position to move quickly on a project than other groups interested in obtaining county funding, such as The Bay.
“We are, in essence, to the point we’re ready to go,” Crosby said. “We are in a position that is, I think, a bit further along — in fact, quite a bit further along — than any other organization that I am familiar with.”
Visit Sarasota County is currently going through a strategic planning process, which Haley hopes can help provide some assistance in the future as the county seeks to establish priorities for tourist tax spending. Haley emphasized that Visit Sarasota plays an advisory role, and any decision is ultimately up to the county.
“We really try to provide the facts — to share best practices from other communities, and then to make sure the commission’s aware of the feelings or the opinions that might exist within the industry,” Haley said.
Crosby said he hoped to have a commitment from the county in the next few months. Despite some uncertainty regarding funding, the commission indicated it also wanted to move quickly to aid Mote in its pursuit of a new aquarium.
“Let’s work through this, because I would like to see this well along by this fall,” Hines said.