Nearly two years after Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced plans to build an aquarium on county-owned land in Nathan Benderson Park, the County Commission unanimously voted Wednesday to support committing $20 million toward the $130 million project.
Although the prospective funding agreement will go to an advisory board for review before the county finalizes any deal with Mote, the County Commission said its preference is to redirect tourist development tax revenue currently dedicated to Visit Sarasota County toward the aquarium project.
Under a preliminary plan county staff outlined Wednesday, Mote would receive 5% of the 5-cent tourist development tax on rentals of six months or shorter. Staff estimated the county would have to make annual payments of $1.1 million on a 30-year bond to accommodate the $20 million funding request in fiscal year 2021.
At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners and Mote officials expressed excitement about the commitment. Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said the county’s support would make it easier to secure funds from other public sources and philanthropic donors as the organization works to begin construction before the end of the year near University Parkway and Interstate 75.
The majority of the commission was eager to endorse the full $20 million funding figure Mote requested from the county in 2018.
“This is a unique project, and I think we should jump on it, I think we should support it and I think we should push it,” Ziegler said.
But the decision drew a negative response from Virginia Haley, president and CEO of Visit Sarasota. The tourism agency is slated to lose $1.2 million in annual funding dedicated to promoting tourism as a destination. Haley believes the looming cuts, combined with previous reductions in the tourist tax revenue allocated to Visit Sarasota, will have a negative effect on the county’s ability to generate tourism-related income moving forward.
“It is a signal that they still don’t understand that the county’s robust economy is tied to the way we promote the county,” Haley said.
The county collected $23.5 million in tourist tax funds in fiscal year 2019. Currently, the funds are distributed as follows: 25-30% to tourism promotion, 24% to beach maintenance, 16-21% toward sports stadiums, 10% toward arts, 10% toward beach renourishment and 10% toward Nathan Benderson Park.
Haley said she believes Mote is a strong tourism asset for the county, but the lack of unallocated tourist tax funds complicated the question of whether to give the organization significant resources for the aquarium project.
“There’s no available funds anymore in the tourist tax without seriously hurting the promotional efforts for years to come,” Haley said.
The county previously adjusted its tourist tax allocations in 2018, diverting up to 5% of the tax devoted to promotions toward sports stadiums to fund renovations at Ed Smith Stadium. Haley argued promotional spending was particularly important at this moment given the recent increase in the number of hotel rooms in the region.
Haley said there was no third-party information available analyzing the effect the new aquarium would have on tourism in the area. She said other communities have a formal evaluation process in place to judge the merits of a request for tourism tax funds. Visit Sarasota has recommended establishing a similar process in Sarasota. In 2018, County Commissioner Charles Hines also expressed interest in such a concept.
“Mote’s a great organization,” Hines said at the time. “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.’ ”
At Wednesday’s meeting, however, Hines was one of multiple commissioners to express their belief the project was a worthwhile investment even considering the impact it might have on current tourist tax allocations.
“The hard part for us to decide is: Is this project so unique and so special to this community that we might have to take away from others?” Hines said. “I’d argue that it is.”
When it announced plans to build a new aquarium in Nathan Benderson Park, Mote shared economic impact projections that estimated there would be 700,000 visitors in the opening year and $28 million in statewide economic benefit associated with annual operations. In 2018, a county consultant questioned some of Mote’s projections, suggesting the attendance estimates were possibly too high.
Although Haley said Mote’s study did not indicate whether the project would lead to an increase in overnight stays subject to the tourist tax, Crosby said the economic impact report was evidence the funding was a good investment for the county. He also cited planned partnerships with local schools and the expansion of Mote’s research facility at City Island as reasons to offer public tax dollars for the aquarium.
“All of those go together to the logic and the rationale for why the commission has been so strongly supportive,” Crosby said.
Haley said that with other major capital projects funded with tourist tax revenue — Ed Smith Stadium, Nathan Benderson Park and CoolToday Park — the money went toward assets the county owned, even though private entities operate the facilities. Although Mote is on a short-term lease to use the Benderson Park land, the county has agreed to sell the 11-acre aquarium site to Mote for $100 if the five-story, 110,000-square-foot project gains the necessary development approvals.
Commissioner Nancy Detert noted that the county had agreed to provide land to Mote for a nominal cost, one of several reasons she said she was hesitant to commit to supporting the full $20 million funding request. Although she said she liked the project and ultimately voted in favor of the funding, she wanted to have the county’s Tourist Development Council review the proposal first and make recommendations on what was feasible.
“To put it in a letter and send it on that this is what the board wants — it’s not outlined as an aspirational goal, and it doesn’t really invite anybody to rebut that dollar amount with us,” Detert said. “Your advisory board isn’t going to come back and say, ‘We think $5 million is good.’”
Although the commission did refer the topic to the Tourist Development Council, it also directed staff to write a letter committing to supporting $20 million in funding and identified promotional spending as its preferred source of revenue for the project. If a funding agreement is finalized, county staff said the issuance of a bond will likely not take place until fiscal year 2021.
Despite Haley’s concern about the county’s vetting of the project, Commissioners Hines, Christian Ziegler and Mike Moran all expressed confidence the project would be beneficial for tourism.
“If we’re going to attract people to come here, we need attractions,” Commissioner Mike Moran said.
Haley said there was a difference between attracting visitors to a specific project and a project attracting visitors to the region. She also reiterated her criticism of the county’s approach to reviewing the funding request, suggesting it could set a precedent for more tourist tax reallocations without a formal system to evaluating the merits of a project.
“Now that you’re going down this road without any kind of process, I think it’s going to be hard to pull it back,” Haley said.