Officials agree the new East County aquarium will benefit Sarasota and Manatee counties. They're just not sure how it will be financed.
Public officials in Manatee and Sarasota counties agree the impact of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium's planned $130 million aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park would be undeniably positive in terms of region-wide economic and educational value.
How to pay for it, however, remains sketchy.
Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac said she attended a presentation at Mote before the announcement came Feb. 8 at the Nathan Benderson Park finish tower.
"Everyone is excited," Benac said. "But, obviously, we have rules."
Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby outlined a financial plan for its new, four-story aquarium that listed philanthropy, corporate sponsorships and public support as three tiers of funding sources. Under public support, it listed the state, Sarasota and Manatee counties and the Sarasota County and Manatee County school systems.
Although Benac attended a private presentation, she said Mote Marine officials have not made "a specific ask" in terms of support from Manatee County. She emphasized Manatee County would not dedicate any tax money toward the project, with the one exception being, perhaps, funds generated from tourist taxes.
"We will have to talk," Benac said. "This will be a huge draw for our region. It's going to bring people here not just during season."
Diana Greene, the superintendent of the School District of Manatee County, said she has had no discussions with Mote officials about any financial support for the new aquarium.
"I do hope we can create an educational partnership with them," she said. "And we hope to be at the table with the Sarasota County School District when they talk about how we can collaborate."
Greene is excited about the educational opportunities the new aquarium will bring, and the fact Crosby said schools can attend free of charge.
"We will have world-class researchers to work with the teachers," Crosby said. "Every child can have a hands-on STEM experience. We will leave no child behind."
Greene said the cost of transportation and insurance can make school trips prohibitive, so not charging the schools for admittance will be important.
"It's tremendous," she said. "Anything we can do to expose our students to hands-on, real-world experiences to enhance their education is important."
In an interview with the Observer after the announcement, Crosby said Mote wasn't banking on support from the local school boards. "Given the very, very tight budget that schools have, I’m not looking for that [funding]," he said. "What we want to do, and what is critically important, is that we work very closely with all the school systems in the region to ensure the STEM education opportunities that we are going to provide."
When news of the aquarium broke on Feb. 8, immediate concerns surfaced about increased traffic around the Mall at University Town Center area due to an additional 700,000 visitors a year.
"There are extra roads planned for Sarasota that would alleviate the traffic concerns, like the I-75 flyover," said Vanessa Baugh, a Manatee County Commissioner who is chairwoman of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Yes, we do need to make modifications, but the DDI (diverging diamond interchange) will help tremendously. Sarasota will need to look at it, and we all need to up our game."
Crosby admitted many details need to be worked out.
"There will be a formal, public process," he said. "We want the community to be very involved in the process."
The first part of the process will involve leasing 5 to 7 acres of county land within Nathan Benderson Park.
Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran said he needs to represent the public's best interests throughout the process, but he noted he is extremely confident the project will move forward.
"I am going to do anything I can to keep this facility from leaving our county," he said. "There is no question we live in an amazing place in terms of arts and culture. This will add to it.
"And this is about attracting youth to our community, and keeping them here."
The aquarium will greatly increase the traffic into Nathan Benderson Park and Stephen Rodriguez, the president of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates which was created to manage the park, said it will be a positive impact.
"The volume of visitors coming to enjoy the aquarium will be amazing and that will present us with tremendous opportunities," he said. "We will complement each other. In what ways? This is a brand new announcement so there will be more meetings to come. We haven't explored the economics yet. This is a partner we never thought we would have."
Crosby said one of the factors Mote Marine chose Nathan Benderson Park was because of the success the park has enjoyed attracting international events.
"Positive things snowball," Rodriguez said. "It's why Nathan Benderson Park exists, to serve the community."
Randy Benderson, the CEO and director of Benderson Development Co., and leader of the Nathan Benderson Community Park Foundation, said he is thrilled by Mote Marine's decision.
"We've always been hopeful big things would happen (at Nathan Benderson Park)," he said. "What we love best is that all these schools and the students will be able to attend at no charge. That is amazing."
Benderson said it was "very possible" the addition of a world-class aquarium could build momentum for other Nathan Benderson Park projects, such as the planned boathouse and events center.
"The vision keeps growing," he said. "There will be more (at Nathan Benderson Park) that we are envisioning."
An immediate impact of the aquarium will be on the local construction industry. Crosby said the primary builder might not be local because the work will be very specialized. "Only a handful of companies in North America will have the expertise to do this, build a three-story, 750,000-gallon aquarium.
"But the overwhelming majority of construction will go to local companies. For 63 years we have been committed to this region. We're home-grown and proven."
Mote Marine searched for a site for its aquarium because its current site at City Island in Sarasota was too small for the project and also not very accessible. Mote Marine officials fell in love with Nathan Benderson Park.
"There’s been a fairly comprehensive feasibility study that looked at it all," Crosby said. "When all of these variables get added together in a final equation, the result is that it is just far superior to any other site. The infrastructure is pretty much in place, and if it isn’t in place, it’s already planned. That’s how I know 43 million cars go by every year. All of those things were looked at. Parking is something we’re also looking at. [We probably] need 500 parking spots. [We’re looking] at different options for how we can handle the parking, and we’re looking obviously to partner very closely so we don’t do this in isolation of the broader traffic and transportation for that immediate region."
Crosby said the new aquarium "will be the fuel for a whole, new economy in Southwest Florida." He said the financial impact for the region during construction will be $280 million and he said the aquarium will have a $28 million impact each year after it opens.
He said he expects to break ground in 2019 and to host a ribbon cutting ceremony in late 2021. Mote Marine has secured 20% of the financial commitment needed to build the aquarium.
"This is the best possible site," he said of Nathan Benderson Park. "It is a nexus location for the region. More than 43 million vehicles pass every year."