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County offers support for aquarium plans

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium officials hope to secure a firm commitment from the county as they pursue a project at Nathan Benderson Park.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. September 20, 2018
Mote hopes to move its aquarium operation from City Island to Nathan Benderson Park. The organization also would expand its research efforts at the City Island campus.
Mote hopes to move its aquarium operation from City Island to Nathan Benderson Park. The organization also would expand its research efforts at the City Island campus.
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As Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium works to build a new aquarium near Interstate 75 and University Parkway, the organization hopes to secure commitments supporting the project as quickly as possible.

The County Commission aided that quest Sept. 11 when board members signaled a commitment to allow Mote to use land at Nathan Benderson Park for the project. Although negotiations are ongoing, several commissioners offered a strong show of support for Mote as it develops plans and raises funds for the new aquarium.

“We’re fully supportive, and this is step one of our formal support,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.

The commission directed county staff to continue discussions with Mote on a land use agreement. Ahead of a final agreement, which will take longer to draft, the commission also directed staff to prepare a resolution formally stating the county’s interest in allowing Mote to use the land barring any unforeseen issues.

Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said the county’s commitment will help in the effort to raise $130 million to pay for the four-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium and education center. Mote hopes to begin construction in 2019 and complete the project by 2021.

Crosby did not divulge how much money has been raised so far — an update will be announced Oct. 27 at Mote’s Oceanic Evening event — but he said interested donors want to know more about the county’s involvement before fully committing.

“We’re quite anxious to do everything we can to work with the county so we can achieve what I think is a shared vision for the future,” Crosby said.

That may require Mote to acquire the 5-acre site within Nathan Benderson Park rather than signing a long-term lease agreement with the county. At the Sept. 11 meeting, several commissioners asked whether Mote would be interested in buying the land from the county. Commissioner Charles Hines said he did not want to deal with the oversight associated with a lease agreement.

“Why would they ever want to come back to us and ask, ‘Can I paint the building?’” Hines said. “‘Can I move this over here?’ I don’t want that.”

A November referendum on a proposed charter amendment complicates the prospect of selling the land. Voters will consider a ballot item that would prohibit the county from selling any parkland. Commissioners expressed frustration about the proposal to restrict the ability to sell land like the Benderson Park parcel.

Crosby said Mote was willing to consider all options for using the land to build the aquarium. He hoped the outline of an agreement with the county could be drafted within weeks.

“Whatever is going to work best for our community — in the end, that’s what the most important thing is,” Crosby said.

Most of the commission’s conversation to date has been focused on land, but Mote is also requesting $20 million in county tourist development tax funds to assist in the construction of the aquarium. The county selected an outside group to review Mote’s proposed business plan. Once that review is complete, staff will present a report to the commission on the feasibility of the project.

Given Mote’s established timeline for beginning work on the aquarium, Crosby hoped the county would be as expedient in committing funding to the project as it has been with the land.

“I think it needs to happen very quickly, and I see no reason why it can’t,” Crosby said.

Crosby acknowledged there is a lot of work left to be done with various groups before the aquarium is built. Based on the enthusiasm he’s seen from potential donors and government officials, though, he believes Mote will be able to meet its established goals for the project.

“All of this, I think, really gives me confidence that we as a community are going to be very successful in achieving this vision together,” Crosby said.


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