When Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced intentions to build a $130 million aquarium at University Town Center, just north of the Nathan Benderson Park Aquatic Center, Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody, among others, reacted with understandable distress, perhaps even a tinge of anger.
Some of the reactions were along the line of: “How could Mote, this much loved icon of the city of Sarasota for so many decades, betray us? After all these years of leasing that valuable City Island property to Mote for $1 a year, it’s heading east with a $130 million investment to be part of Benderson Park? How is that for thanks?”
There was also some introspective blaming. Brody wondered: How could the city staff let this happen?
It wasn’t all that difficult to figure out. Two years prior, as discussions began on what to do with Sarasota’s 53 acres of Bayfront, Mote pitched the idea of developing its aquarium on the bayfront. Sarasota city officialdom seemed indifferent, and by so doing, sent a cue to Mote’s leaders: Look elsewhere.
The Benderson site was a logical result. Michael Crosby, CEO of Mote Marine, said the organization considered sites north of Sarasota, even as far south as Port Charlotte. But Mote’s consultants and studies said what is common sense.
Forget whatever parochial squabbling has occurred with the city. If you take into account Mote Marine’s aspirations — as Crosby puts it: “To be the absolute top marine science, research and education institution in the world” — the location of the aquarium near University Town Center is a strategic and thoughtful piece of an ambitious vision.
It goes like this:
To be the top institution in the world, Mote needs more money and space. “We’re constrained by our limited infrastructure on City Island,” Crosby told us. Too often, he says, if an out-of-state or international scientist wants to bring his or her research project (and the money funding it) to Mote, “we’ve got no space.”
That’s lost revenue — big revenue. When you look at Mote’s sources of cash, research and the aquarium are the institution’s top two revenue generators, accounting for 55% to 66% of the annual revenue. Memberships and fundraising account only for about 6% of total revenue.
The issue for growth: How to maximize the two money makers.
Crosby and the board determined step one is to develop a one-of-a-kind educational aquarium in a highly visible location with easy access. That would allow for step two: freeing up space on Mote’s existing campus for what is envisioned to be Mote Marine’s International Marine Science, Technology & Innovation Park.
Mote is estimating the aquarium location on Interstate 75 frontage would attract more than 700,000 annual visitors, more than twice what it hosts today — and, logically, at least doubling annual aquarium revenue to more than $6.5 million a year.
At the same time, shifting the aquarium east would allow Mote to repurpose existing infrastructure and build new research centers on City Island. Crosby points to Mote’s recently completed 19,000-square-foot coral reef research center in the Keys — a $7 million project. He envisions three similar centers operating at City Island — requiring another $21 million to be raised after raising the $130 million for the aquarium and while the aquarium is being built.
The economic impact from the City Island innovation park would produce “much, much more revenue” than the aquarium, Crosby says. He envisions what he calls Mote becoming the hub of a Silicon Valley for marine research, serving as an incubator that spawns marine-related startups and research unlike any in the world, which in turn will fuel job and economic growth.
Is this just Crosby hype? Whenever anyone in Sarasota starts making comparisons to becoming the Silicon Valley of This or That, the skeptic meter starts jumping. But even so, you can sense Crosby’s passion and his belief that Mote’s vision is realistic. And we’ll give him this: It’s refreshing to hear the leader of another prominent institution — a la Ringling College’s Larry Thompson — have a vision that reaches for the stars, as opposed to the sea-level-rising, we’re-all-going-to-sink obsession that permeates Sarasota City Hall and a newspaper that shall remain nameless.
But like most things, the Mote vision hinges on money. Crosby says Mote has commitments for $26 million, or 20%, of the $130 million for the aquarium. To stay on target for a 2019 groundbreaking, Crosby is shooting to have commitments for the entire amount by the end of the 2019 legislative session.
Last week, he made his pitch to the Sarasota County Commission for $20 million from the Tourist Development Tax, the 5% bed tax on hotel rooms and short-term rentals. He says he is hoping for more from the state.
In response, county commissioners deferred to the county staff to determine whether there is enough cash to accommodate Mote’s request. They sounded eager to want to do it.
But at the moment, it doesn’t look like there is any extra cash. The current budget for the tourist development tax shows revenue totaling $20.75 million and expenses of $23.83 million. Virginia Haley, CEO of VisitSarasota, told us this week: “In terms of what TDT funds are available, there are none currently.”
The county’s commitment to two baseball stadiums is consuming every penny that can be used for such facilities, which also includes aquariums. Based on the county ordinance governing the allocation of the 5-cent tax, Ed Smith Stadium and the new Atlanta Braves stadium in North Port receive 80% of a fifth of the total tax revenue (.80 x $4,150,000, or roughly $3.32 million a year). Altogether the county has committed $57 million to two sports facilities that draw tourists 30 days a year over a 30-year period.
If Mote is to tap into the tourist-tax trough for the $20 million it needs in the next two years, county commissioners would have to change its allocation ordinance. Talk about poking a hornet’s nest of special interests. Just look at the diagram on who gets how much.
“[There are] lots of additional complicating factors,” Haley says. “Other entities have signaled that they are interested in TDT funds, such as [Marie Selby Botanical Gardens] for their expansion, at least two arena proposals, The Bay project and there are more.”
It’s too bad current and previous county commissioners allowed themselves to fall for the Major League Baseball con game of funding spring training facilities for businesses that don’t need it. Those contracts limit the county’s flexibility with the tourist tax.
But on the scale of choices, weighing which ones have the potential actually to generate an above-average return on investment for the community and region at large, Mote Marine’s aquarium and innovation park is a vision this community should pursue and embrace. It would be awesome to have two world No. 1s — Ringling College of Art and Design and Mote Marine Laboratory.