In early 2018, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced its plans to relocate its aquarium to a new $130 million facility in Nathan Benderson Park.
Although Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby shared plans to break ground in 2019, there were still some key details to be sorted out. For one, Mote needed to raise money to pay for the building. For another, the County Commission hadn’t even formally discussed the prospect of allowing Mote to use the desired land in Benderson Park, located near University Parkway and Interstate 75.
About a year later, some of those issues have been addressed. The county and Mote have reached a preliminary agreement on the use of a 15-acre plot. Mote has secured more than $28 million in donations to build the aquarium.
But, as Mote remains hopeful construction will begin this year, there remains at least one step that Crosby said must be taken before the project can commence: a significant financial commitment from Sarasota County.
Crosby called the $20 million funding request a crucial part of Mote’s aquarium plans. What happens to the project if the county determines it can’t give Mote that money — even if the commission is willing to consider a lesser financial contribution?
“Doesn’t get done,” Crosby said.
Although Mote submitted a formal request to the county in May, the commission has yet to have a substantive discussion about the prospect of funding the project. Commissioners have publicly supported the project, but staff is still in the process of reviewing Mote’s business plan and the details of the funding request.
County staff has said any funding would likely come from the tourist development tax, levied on transient rental properties throughout the county. At a Dec. 14 board retreat, commissioners discussed the possibility of creating a new process for vetting funding requests like Mote’s.
“Mote’s a great organization,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “Will that aquarium put heads in beds? I don’t know; it might. … That needs to be part of our discussion, rather than, ‘I like that project, I think it’s good.’ ”
Crosby was optimistic about the prospect of securing an agreement with the county, describing Mote’s discussions with county staff positively. He called the aquarium project not only a significant economic driver, but also an opportunity to improve science education and outreach within the community.
“The case for support is so strong,” Crosby said. “Everybody wants to say yes. All we’ve got to do is sit down and put our heads together.”
Mote’s ambitions for the new year expand beyond finalizing details of the aquarium project. Mote intends to turn its City Island campus, where the aquarium is currently based, into an expanded headquarters for its research arm. That means bringing on board more staff members to conduct that research work. Mote’s growth strategies also apply to other campuses, such as its coral research facility in the Florida Keys, and initiatives, such as the recently founded Red Tide Institute.
“I suppose No. 1 on the to-do list for Mote in 2019 is to significantly grow our capabilities to have an even greater impact on addressing the grand challenges facing our marine and coastal ecosystems,” Crosby said.
With red tide a particularly pressing subject in Sarasota after the events of 2018, Crosby believes the Red Tide Institute will make tangible strides toward addressing the negative effects of the algal blooms.
“I fully expect at the end of a year, you’re going to see significant progress,” Crosby said. “I fully expect that within a period of three to five years, we will have available deployable technologies that can be used to battle red tide.”
From the new aquarium to red tide and beyond, Crosby and Mote are moving with an aggressive, ambitious attitude toward tackling the organization’s goals.
“We’re not slowing down,” Crosby said. “We’re doing more and more and more because the oceans demand it. The opportunities are there to have a much better impact in the community.”