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Sarasota Thursday, May 27, 2021 2 months ago

Mote works to get aquarium project across finish line

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Still shy of a $130 million fundraising goal and awaiting development approvals, Mote Marine officials say plans for a destination attraction remain on track.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

A tract of dirt near Interstate 75 and University Parkway may not have looked like much to motorists for the past six months, but Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium sees the upturned soil as the first step of what the organization expects to be a transformative project for the region.

Since 2018, Mote officials have been pursuing plans for a new four-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium on county-owned land in Nathan Benderson Park. They’ve cleared a number of hurdles necessary to facilitate the project, called the Mote Science Education Aquarium — Mote SEA for short. In 2018, Sarasota County approved the terms of a land use deal with Mote, setting aside 11 acres of county-owned property for the project. In early 2020, the organization secured a commitment of $20 million in tourist tax funding from Sarasota County and an additional $5 million from Manatee County.

Those developments occurred prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic locally, but Mote officials said the health emergency hasn’t had any effect on its plans for the project. In November, Mote held a groundbreaking for the aquarium, hosting local and state officials who spoke effusively about the plans for a landmark attraction.

“Today we are celebrating this milestone event ... bringing Mote SEA alive,” Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said in November. “This site is going to be a gateway for Southwest Florida and a gateway for the sea.”

Still, half a year removed from breaking ground, there remains a series of tasks remaining. Mote officials declined to share up-to-date fundraising numbers, but as of summer 2020, the organization had secured $75 million in commitments — less than 60% of its $130 million fundraising goal. Michael Moore, a special adviser leading the $130 million fundraising campaign, said the organization hopes to meet its goal by the end of 2021.

“We’re waiting to make a big announcement when the time is appropriate,” Moore said.

Mote leaders joined local and state officials to celebrate the groundbreaking of the aquarium project in November. To date, work on the site has focused preliminary improvements such as construction of a parking lot.

Moore said Mote has not had any donors back out because of the pandemic or other reasons, but those commitments don’t necessarily translate to cash in hand at the moment. The county’s $20 million pledge has not been finalized, requiring additional budget approvals and the issuance of a bond. The County Commission conditioned its financial support on Mote successfully meeting the balance of its fundraising goal, making the county contribution the last money in.

The commission has not strayed from that commitment, but in 2020, members of the advisory Tourist Development Council suggested the county may need to revisit its plans to reallocate tourism promotion funds toward the Mote project. Dan Bebak, Mote’s aquarium, education and outreach vice president, said there’s been no discussion with the county about possible changes related to that funding.

Although Mote officials said COVID-19 has not affected their progress, the project has lagged behind targets the nonprofit initially set. Upon announcing plans to relocate the aquarium from City Island, Crosby said he was shooting to break ground in 2019 and complete the facility by 2021. Today, Bebak said Mote is working to begin vertical construction in January 2022, a process expected to take two years to finish.

Mote officials remain confident in their outlook. The county has authorized the ongoing first phase of construction, focused on preliminary site work and creation of a parking lot.

Earlier this month, the County Commission approved a land use change that, once finalized, will make an aquarium a permitted use on the land Mote is leasing. And Bebak said Mote is on track to finalize the purchase of that land from the county for $100, as outlined in the initial agreement between the two parties.

Moore acknowledged raising funds for such a large capital goal is a cyclical process. More than three years into this initiative — and with at least $75 million in resources already secured — Moore said landing new money requires constant contact and leveraging existing relationships to expand the network of potential donors.

The site along the highway still might not look like much to most people, but Mote is hopeful it will be a tool to invigorate prospective supporters of the aquarium and ultimately help make the project a reality.

“When you can start to show people that you’re moving dirt, and that you’re making progress— that takes it to a whole new level of excitement,” Moore said.

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