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Mote plans $130 million aquarium at Benderson Park

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium intends to relocate its aquarium facility from City Island to land near University Parkway and I-75.

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  • | 3:00 p.m. February 8, 2018
An preliminary rendering shows the proposed Mote aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.
An preliminary rendering shows the proposed Mote aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.
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Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium wants to take its expertise to the mainland.

Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby announced today the organization plans to relocate its aquarium to a four-story, $130 million building on a five-acre site within Nathan Benderson Park. Called the Mote Science Education Aquarium, the facility would be more than twice the size of Mote’s existing aquarium space.

Although Mote plans to build the aquarium on county-owned land, the organization has not yet obtained an agreement with the county to proceed with the project. Crosby said Mote has had preliminary conversations with county officials and will now make a formal request for a lease agreement.

Mote is beginning a $130 million fundraising campaign, called Oceans for All, to fund the $100 million construction cost and $20 million to $30 million in pre-construction expenses. Crosby said Mote plans to raise money from philanthropic sources, public entities and corporate partnerships. 

Crosby said Mote hopes to break ground by 2019 and open the new aquarium by 2021. Already, Mote has secured more than 20% in commitments toward its fundraising goal.

Crosby could not say specifically how much public funding the project will rely on. He said it would depend on the strength of the economy and the amount of money Mote is able to secure from other sources.

Mote also plans to expand its research operations at its current City Island location, and the aquarium there will remain open until the ribbon is cut on the new facility.

At a news conference at Benderson Park this morning, Mote officials framed the decision as an opportunity to both create a world-class aquarium destination and enhance the organization’s research work.

“The evolution of our City Island campus is going to necessitate giving a rebirth, if you will, to our Mote aquarium on the mainland,” Crosby said.

Official Reactions

The county, meanwhile, is awaiting further details on the plans.

“Mote is a valued and important part of this community,” Sarasota County said in a statement provided through a spokesperson. “While they have shared preliminary information about their project, no request or proposal has been provided. Until that time, staff cannot speculate on Sarasota County’s role in their new facility. We look forward to hearing more details.”

County staff declined to comment on the procedural steps necessary for Mote to obtain a lease. Crosby said Mote will go through a formal process with county staff, commissioners and the community to ensure they are all supportive of the proposed location.

“Well, you can never be 100% confident about many things in life, but we have done some preliminary research in terms of what kinds of things are permissible to occur on the county property,” Crosby said. “We believe that there is nothing that would prevent us from either an environmental perspective or a regulatory perspective from pursuing a long-term lease.”

City officials, meanwhile, said they did not know Mote had secured a specific aquarium location until the past couple of days. Still, City Manager Tom Barwin was happy to hear Crosby’s commitment to the City Island research campus and hoped the city and Mote would maintain a solid partnership going forward.

“We’ll continue our close working relationship with Mote,” Barwin said. “I think we’re pretty tight partners.”

The vision for beyond 2020 is for Mote to transform its City Island facility into a more expansive research hub. Last month, Crosby hired two new employees with doctoral degrees, but sent them to Mote’s Florida Keys campus because of a lack of space on City Island.

“We need to evolve that campus into an international marine science, technology and innovation park,” Crosby said.

The next step is for Mote staff to call county staff, explain Mote’s vision and ask to have a discussion, Crosby said. Crosby is confident leaders in both Manatee and Sarasota counties will see how Mote’s mission in STEM education and workforce development is a “recipe for success.”

“There’s always a backup plan, but I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t see how beneficial this is for our community,” Crosby said. “This is an added benefit to the park itself right now. It will be a significant enhancement to the investment that the counties and state have already made in this park.”

Aquarium History 

Mote’s pursuit of a new aquarium has been ongoing for years.

Seven years ago, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium shared a goal with the community to expand Mote’s research facilities and operations through its 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan. As part of that goal, Mote planned to relocate its aquarium facility off City Island and to the mainland. 

Mote’s 2020 Vision and Strategic Plan was approved in 2011 by the board of directors. The vision has four priorities, Crosby told the Observer in 2016: expand Mote’s global marine research program, draw and retain top marine scientists, use Mote’s science to impact conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and give back to the community in terms of service.

A rendering of a future lobby for the new Mote Science Education Aquarium. Courtesy of Mote.
A rendering of a future lobby for the new Mote Science Education Aquarium. Courtesy of Mote.

Searching for a new aquarium home, Mote originally set its sights on the bayfront. In September 2014, Crosby announced plans to pursue a downtown Sarasota aquarium on a 5-acre parcel near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

In October 2014, the Sarasota City Commission voted against reserving a piece of bayfront land for a Mote aquarium. The commission passed a motion encouraging Mote to continue advocating for a bayfront site through the grassroots Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 planning process.

At the time, Crosby suggested Mote wanted to move quickly in its pursuit of a mainland aquarium site. In 2015, he said a waterfront spot was not a priority for an aquarium. He also affirmed Mote’s commitment to City Island as a research home. 

“Our City Island campus is probably one of the best locations — any place in the world — for a marine research institution,” Crosby said today. “But it’s not necessarily the most accessible site for a major public attraction.”

As it continued to search for a place to put is aquarium, Mote continued to raise money to implement its 2020 vision. In 2016, the organization passed the $50 million fundraising total set for its Oceans of Opportunity campaign.

Crosby said Mote, which is one of the founding members of Bayfront 20:20, will stay engaged with the bayfront planning process.

“Remember that the water is not a barrier between us; it is a bridge between us,“ Crosby said. “So when you look at the City Island campus, we’d like to think there will be a connection between our visions for that international marine science, technology and innovation part, as well as the bayfront.”

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.


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